UN defies US to recognise sovereign state of Palestine
THE United Nations last night recognised a sovereign state of Palestine for the first time, as it overwhelmingly ignored dire warnings from the United States and Israel that the decision would wreck peace talks.
An historic resolution that enhanced the Palestinians' position at the UN from "permanent observer" to “non-member observer state”, a status also held by the Vatican, passed the General Assembly by a resounding 138 votes to 9, with 41 countries abstaining, including Britain. Five nations did not register a vote. The no votes were US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, Palau, Panama, Nauru, Mirconesia and Marshall Islands.
Introducing the resolution, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, said approval would "issue a birth certificate for the state of Palestine".
"Palestine has come to the United Nations because it believes in peace and because its people are in desperate need of peace," said Mr Abbas, who arrived in and departed the UN's grand hall to a standing ovation from delegates.
"The international community is now the last chance to save the two-state solution. We did not come here to complicate the peace process. The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: enough Israeli aggression, settlements and occupation."
After the vote, celebrations erupted In the West Bank city of Ramallah, with hundreds crowding into the main square waving Palestinian flags and chanting "God is great".
The vote will not immediately end the Palestinians' six-decade wait for independence and will not give them a vote at the UN. But it will enable them to join the International Criminal Court and potentially prosecute Israelis for war crimes, and seek rulings on territorial disputes at the International Court of Justice.
Thousands of Palestinians from rival factions gathered in the streets of the West Bank, seeing the vote as a major step in their quest for global recognition.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, dismissed the vote's importance.
"This is a meaningless resolution that won't change anything on the ground. No Palestinian state will arise without an arrangement ensuring the security of Israeli citizens," he said in a statement issued by his office shortly before votes were cast in New York.
He said that Mr Abbas's comments were "hostile and poisonous", and full of "false propaganda". "These are not the words of a man who wants peace," he said.
But his argument was rebuffed by European nations, which with a few exceptions have previously given staunch support to Israel at the UN.
Although a six-decade wait for Palestinian independence will not end immediately, thousands of Palestinians from rival factions gathered in the streets of the West Bank, seeing the vote as a major step in their quest for global recognition.
Speaking before the vote, the Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor said that granting Palestine non-member observer state status was “the wrong choice”.
He added: “Today the Palestinians are turning their back on peace. Do not let history record that today the UN helped them along on their march of folly.”
Ziad Abu Ein, deputy Palestinian minister for prisoners' affairs, said: "People want to have their freedom, their own independent state and to live in peace with the Israeli state – not in peace with the Israeli army occupation."
Wasef Erekat, 66, a Palestine Liberation Organisation veteran, said the vote represented more than a symbolic victory.
"We are using our rights to tell the world that we are not terrorists, as the Israelis used to say, but human beings who want to become members of the international community," said Mr Erekat, cousin of the Palestinian Authority's negotiator, Saeb Erekat. "We are looking for full membership in future. We are moving in the right direction to becoming a Palestinian state."
As the vote approached, it appeared likely that very few of the European Union's 27 member states would oppose the bid.
Britain did abstain. To vote yes, the Government had demanded assurances from the Palestinians on their future conduct that, with hours to go before the vote, were not forthcoming.
Leading Anglican and Catholic bishops called on William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, to increase efforts to revitalise the stalled peace process, calling his decision to abstain "regrettable".
EU nations felt moved to support the moderate Mr Abbas in a bid to revive his dialogue with Israel which collapsed two years ago and has been followed by increased construction of Israeli settlements.
The eight-day conflict this month between Israel and his Hamas rivals in Gaza weakened Mr Abbas, a moderate leader whose authority only covers the West Bank.
The immediate effect on his standing remains to be seen, but the very mention of the word "state" in the Palestinians' new UN status would carry potent political symbolism.
The word "Palestine", with its connotations of a country, could thereafter be more commonly used in referring to the Palestinian territories, West Bank and Gaza.
The Palestinians' upgraded status would also allow them to join the International Criminal Court, where they could try and accuse Israel of war crimes, or the International Court of Justice, that deals with territorial disputes, a key sticking point in negotiations. Leaders have however said they would not do anything to antagonise the Israelis unnecessarily.
The vote was deliberately tabled on the 65th anniversary of the General Assembly's adoption of the resolution that divided British Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, creating a legal and geo-political quagmire that has never been successfully dealt with.
In Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank, crowds of flag-waving Palestinians soaked up a festive atmosphere in preparation for celebrations planned to mark the vote.
Against a thumping backbeat of nationalistic songs and traditional dancing in Arafat Square, Hala Rihan, eight, and her brother Mohammed, six, sported Palestinian colours and traditional Arab keffiyehs as their mother, Shereen, 29, voiced her pride over events unfolding thousands of miles away in New York.
"I feel very nice and want to cry," she said. "We have a country for the first time. We must tell our sons and daughters that we have a country called Palestine. I feel the future will be very good, two countries, Palestine and Israel, living side-by-side in peace."
Timeline: A century of conflict
1917 The Balfour Declaration, on a home for the Jewish people
1947 UN votes for partition
1948 First Arab-Israeli war. Becomes known to the Palestinians as al-Nakba, the "Catastrophe"
1959 Yasser Arafat forms Fatah
1967 The Six-Day War
1973 Yom Kippur war
1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty
1987 First intifada
1993 Oslo Peace Accord, signed by Arafat and Israel's PM Yitzhak Rabin
1994 Arafat returns from exile
1995 Rabin is assassinated
2000 Camp David talks collapse; second intifada
2006 Israel–Lebanon war
2008 Operation Cast Lead
Alex Spillius, Telegraph.co.uk