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More than 130 countries voted on Thursday to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer state of the United Nations, a triumph for Palestinian diplomacy and a sharp rebuke to the United States and Israel.
But the vote, at least for now, did little to bring either the Palestinians or the Israelis closer to the goal they claim to seek: two states living side by side, or increased Palestinian unity. Israel and the militant group Hamas both responded critically to the day’s events, though for different reasons.
The new status will give the Palestinians more tools to challenge Israel in international legal forums for its occupation activities in the West Bank, including settlement-building, and it helped bolster the Palestinian Authority, weakened after eight days of battle between its rival Hamas and Israel.
But even as a small but determined crowd of 2,000 celebrated in central Ramallah in the West Bank, waving flags and dancing, there was an underlying sense of concerned resignation.
“I hope this is good,” said Munir Shafie, 36, an electrical engineer who was there. “But how are we going to benefit?”
Still, the General Assembly vote — 138 countries in favour, 9 opposed and 41 abstaining — showed impressive backing for the Palestinians at a difficult time. It was taken on the 65th anniversary of the vote to divide the former British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, a vote Israel considers the international seal of approval for its birth.
The past two years of Arab uprisings have marginalised the Palestinian cause to some extent as nations that focused their political aspirations on the Palestinian struggle have turned inward. The vote on Thursday, coming so soon after the Gaza fighting, put the Palestinians again — if briefly, perhaps — at the centre of international discussion.
“The question is, where do we go from here and what does it mean?” Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, who was in New York for the vote, said in an interview. “The sooner the tough rhetoric of this can subside and the more this is viewed as a logical consequence of many years of failure to move the process forward, the better.” He said nothing would change without deep American involvement.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, speaking to the assembly’s member nations, said, “The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine,” and he condemned what he called Israeli racism and colonialism. His remarks seemed aimed in part at Israel and in part at Hamas. But both quickly attacked him for the parts they found offensive.
“The world watched a defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the Israel Defense Forces and the citizens of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel responded. “Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner.”
While Hamas had officially backed the United Nations bid of Abbas, it quickly criticised his speech because the group does not recognise Israel.
“There are controversial issues in the points that Abbas raised, and Hamas has the right to preserve its position over them,” said Salah al-Bardaweel, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, on Thursday.
“We do not recognise Israel, nor the partition of Palestine, and Israel has no right in Palestine,” he added. “Getting our membership in the UN bodies is our natural right, but without giving up any inch of Palestine’s soil.”
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, spoke after Abbas and said he was concerned that the Palestinian Authority failed to recognise Israel for what it is.
“Three months ago, Israel’s prime minister stood in this very hall and extended his hand in peace to President Abbas,” Prosor said. “He reiterated that his goal was to create a solution of two states for two peoples, where a demilitarised Palestinian state will recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
“That’s right. Two states for two peoples. In fact, President Abbas, I did not hear you use the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ this afternoon. In fact, I have never heard you say the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ because the Palestinian leadership has never recognised that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
The Israelis also say that the fact that Abbas is not welcome in Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave run by Hamas, from which he was ejected five years ago, shows that there is no viable Palestinian leadership living up to its obligations now.
As expected, the vote won backing from a number of European countries, and was a rebuff to intense American and Israeli diplomacy. France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland all voted yes. Britain and Germany abstained. Apart from Canada, no major country joined the United States and Israel in voting no. The other opponents included Palau, Panama and Micronesia.
Susan E Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, was dismissive of the entire exercise. “Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” she said. “And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”
A major concern for the Americans is that the Palestinians may use their new status to try to join the International Criminal Court. That prospect particularly worries the Israelis, who fear that the Palestinians may press for an investigation of their practices in the occupied territories widely viewed as violations of international law.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that after the vote “life will not be the same” because “Palestine will become a country under occupation.”
“The terms of reference for any negotiations become withdrawal,” Erekat said.
Another worry is that the Palestinians may use the vote to seek membership in specialised agencies of the United Nations, a move that could have consequences for the financing of the international organisations as well as the Palestinian Authority itself. Congress cut off financing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as Unesco, in 2011 after it accepted Palestine as a member. The United States is a major contributor to many of these agencies and is active on their governing boards.
In response to the Palestinian bid, a bipartisan group of senators said Thursday that they would introduce legislation that would cut off foreign aid to the authority if it tried to use the International Criminal Court against Israel, and close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington if Palestinians refused to negotiate with Israel.
Calling the Palestinian bid “an unhealthy step that could undermine the peace process,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said that he and the other senators, including Charles E Schumer, Democrat of New York, would be closely monitoring the situation.
The vote came shortly after an eight-day Israeli military assault on Gaza that Israel described as a response to stepped-up rocket fire into Israel. The operation killed scores of Palestinians and was aimed at reducing the arsenal of Hamas in Gaza, part of the territory that the United Nations resolution expects to make up a future state of Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah, was politically weakened by the Gaza fighting, with its rivals in Hamas seen by many Palestinians as more willing to stand up to Israel and fight back. That shift in sentiment is one reason that some Western countries gave for backing the United Nations resolution, to strengthen Abbas and his more moderate colleagues in their contest with Hamas.
© 2012 The New York Times News Service