Thousands of flag-waving Palestinians set off fireworks and danced in the streets to celebrate a United Nations General Assembly vote granting de facto recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state.
LATEST: In Bethlehem, the bells of the Church of the Nativity peeled in honor of the vote, and thousands of people crowded around to watch a live broadcast of President Mahmoud Abbas's speech in New York projected on the concrete of Israel's separation wall.
"I feel we are living a historic day, the birth of the state of Palestine," said Suha Awadallah, wearing a black and white keffiyeh, in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital.
In a rare show of unity, Abbas's Islamist rivals Hamas, who have ruled Gaza since a brief civil war in 2007, let supporters of the president's Fatah movement hold rallies there.
In the West Bank towns of Hebron, Nablus and Jenin, as well as Ramallah, people gathered on rooftops and balconies, cheering patriotic songs blaring from speakers.
The crowds were boosted by last-minute declarations of support from west European countries, adding more weight to the victory in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, which upgraded the Palestinian Authority's observer status to a "non-member state".
"Now we can drag Israel to international courts for crimes committed against Palestinians in Gaza, this is important for us," Mohammad Issa in Ramallah said, as he listened to Abbas's speech.
U.N. recognition would allow the Palestinians to take action against Israel at the International Court of Justice on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity or other crimes the court would have jurisdiction over.
Nasser Abdel Hadi, owner of a famous Ramallah restaurant, baked a massive pizza in the red, white, green and black colors of the Palestinian flag.
"What Israel has done over the course of the past 60 years has been criminal," he said. "They took our land, our children and our future. The battle is now at the United Nations."
Israel, the United States and a handful of other U.N. members voted against what they see as a largely symbolic and counter-productive move by the Palestinians, insisting true statehood can only be achieved through a comprehensive Middle East peace treaty ending 65 years of intractable conflict.
A bid by Abbas last year for full statehood was defeated in the U.N. Security Council, where Washington has a veto.
He has pledged a prompt return to negotiations with Israel when he wins the upgrade from "entity" to "observer state". Talks have been frozen for two years.
Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, land captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Hamas leaders, who do not recognize the state of Israel, dropped their initial opposition to Abbas' statehood move and gave it their backing but have not softened their opposition to the two-state solution Abbas advocates.
"We support any political achievement for our people to reach out and acquire a state," Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said on Thursday.
But Haniyeh insisted Hamas's position would not change, and stood "on the basis of non-recognition of the occupier and in commitment to our strategic and everlasting rights, foremost being the right of return (of Palestinian refugees)."
"We do not believe in the two-state solution," Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal said earlier.
Hamas and other militants this month fought an eight-day conflict with Israel, which launched an offensive to halt rocket fire from Gaza into its southern towns. The brief war killed at least 170 Palestinians and six Israelis.
'An important vote'
The UN General Assembly has overwhelmingly voted to grant Palestinians "non-member state" UN observer status, recognising implicitly the sovereign state of Palestine.
The resolution upgrading the Palestinians' status to a nonmember observer state at the United Nations was approved by the 193-member world body today by a vote of 138-9 with 41 abstentions.
Secretary General to the UN Ban Ki-moon said, "an important vote has taken place today".
"The decision by General Assembly to appoint Palestine non-member observer status to the United Nations was a prerogative of the member states.
"I believe that the Palestinians have a legitimate right to their own independent state. I believe that Israel has the right to live in peace and security with its neighbours. There is no substitute for negotiations to that end.
"Today's vote underscores the urgency of a resumption of meaningful negotiations.
"I urge the parties to renew their commitment to a negotiated peace," he said.
A Palestinian flag was quickly unfurled on the floor of the General Assembly, behind the Palestinian delegation.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, hundreds crowded into the main square waved Palestinian flags and chanted "God is great." Others who had crowded around outdoor screens and television sets to watch the vote hugged, honked and set off fireworks before dancing in the streets.
Real independence, however, remains an elusive dream until the Palestinians negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis, who warned that the General Assembly action will only delay a lasting solution. Israel still controls the West Bank, east Jerusalem and access to Gaza, and it accused the Palestinians of bypassing negotiations with the campaign to upgrade their UN status.
The United States immediately criticized the historic vote. US UN representative Susan Rice said, "we have always been clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace they both deserve."
"Two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel. That remains our goal.
"Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path of peace, that is why the United States voted against it," she said.
Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor says the only way to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians is through agreements between the parties, not through the United Nations.
Speaking before a General Assembly vote that would grant the Palestinians nonmember state observer status at the UN, Prosor said the UN can't break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and land of Israel. He accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of ignoring history.
The UN General Assembly is certain to approve the resolution that will elevate the Palestinians, who have until now been considered an observer "entity."
Netanyahu condemns Abbas
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's strong critique of Israel in his speech at the United Nations as ''hostile and poisonous'', and full of ''false propaganda''.
''These are not the words of a man who wants peace,'' Netanyahu also said in a statement released by his office after Abbas spoke at the General Assembly ahead of an expected vote to implicitly recognise Palestinian statehood despite the absence of a peace deal with Israel.
Two-state's last chance
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly before a key vote today (NZ time) that it "is being asked to issue the birth certificate of Palestine."
The Palestinians were certain to win UN recognition as a state, but Israel and the United States warned it could delay hopes of achieving an independent Palestinian state through peace talks with Israel.
Abbas said the vote is the last chance to save the two-state solution.
The General Assembly vote was certain to succeed, with most of the 193 member states sympathetic to the Palestinians. Several key countries, including France, recently announced they would support the move to elevate the Palestinians from the status of UN observer to nonmember observer state.
Palestinians say the successful vote will strengthen their hand in future talks with Israel, which has lambasted the recognition bid as an attempt to bypass such negotiations.
Jubilant Palestinians crowded around outdoor screens and television sets at home to watch the United Nations vote.
At least formally, the vote would put Palestine on equal footing with Israel, meaning future talks would be conducted between two states, rather than between a military occupier and a people under occupation.
The vote grants Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. With Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu opposed to a pullback to the 1967 lines, this should strengthen Abbas' hand if peace talks resume.
The UN bid also could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of standstill in peace efforts. His rival, Hamas, deeply entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after an Israeli offensive on targets linked to the Islamic militant group there earlier this month.
The US, Israel's closest ally, has mounted an aggressive campaign to head off the General Assembly vote. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defiantly declared overnight (NZ time) that the Palestinians would have to back down from long-held positions if they ever hope to gain independence.
In a last-ditch move yesterday, US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood. The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.
In a statement today, Abbas appealed to all nations to vote in favour of the Palestinians "as an investment in peace."
"We remain committed to the two-state solution and our hand remains extended in peace," Abbas said in a statement read by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki after the start of the General Assembly session. Abbas is expected to address the assembly in the afternoon.
While Israel argues that Abbas is trying to dictate the outcome of border talks by going to the UN, the recognition request presented to the world body in fact calls for a quick resumption of negotiations on all core issues of the conflict, including borders.
Netanyahu's predecessors accepted the 1967 lines as a basis for border talks. Netanyahu has rejected the idea, while pressing ahead with Jewish settlement building on war-won land, giving Abbas little incentive to negotiate.
In a departure from previous opposition, the Hamas militant group, which rules the Gaza Strip, said it wouldn't interfere with the UN bid, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations Thursday.
In the West Bank city of Hebron, some in a crowd of several thousand raised green Hamas flags, while in the city of Ramallah, senior figures of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two militant groups normally opposed to Abbas, addressed the crowd.
"It's the right step in the right direction," Nasser al-Shaer, a former deputy prime minister from Hamas, said of the UN bid.
The Palestinians chose the "International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" for the vote. Before it takes place, there will be a morning of speeches by supporters focusing on the rights of the Palestinians. Abbas is scheduled to speak at that meeting, and again in the afternoon when he will present the case for Palestinian statehood in the General Assembly.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned that the UN vote will not fulfill the goal of independent Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace, which the US strongly supports because that requires direct negotiations.
"We need an environment conducive to that," she told reporters in Washington. "And we've urged both parties to refrain from actions that might in any way make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult."
The US Congress has threatened financial sanctions if the Palestinians improve their status at the United Nations.
Ahead of the vote, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch filed an amendment to a defence bill yesterday that would eliminate funding for the United Nations if the General Assembly changes Palestine's status.
But Israeli officials appeared to back away from threats of drastic measures if the Palestinians get UN approval, with officials suggesting the government would take steps only if the Palestinians use their new status to act against Israel.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev affirmed that Israel is willing to resume talks without preconditions.
UN diplomats said they will be listening closely to Abbas' speech to the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon before the vote to see if he makes an offer of fresh negotiations with no strings, which could lead to new talks. The Palestinians have been demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements as a precondition.
As a sign of the importance Israel attaches to the vote, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman flew to New York and was scheduled to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before the vote.
Unlike the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and the resolution to raise the Palestinian status from an observer to a nonmember observer state only requires a majority vote for approval. To date, 132 countries — over two-thirds of the UN member states — have recognised the state of Palestine.
The Palestinians have been courting Western nations, especially the Europeans, seen as critical to enhancing their international standing. A number have announced they will vote "yes" including France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. Those opposed or abstaining include the US, Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid last fall for full UN membership until there is a peace deal with Israel.
Following last year's move by the Palestinians to join the UN cultural agency UNESCO, the US withheld funds from the organization, which amount to 22 percent of its budget. The US also withheld money from the Palestinians.
- AP, Reuters