WASHINGTON -- Over staunch U.S. objections, the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to name Palestine a non-member observer state, a symbolic victory for the stateless Palestinians and a political boost for their embattled president, Mahmoud Abbas.
The United States, Israel and seven other countries opposed the resolution, while 138 nations voted in favor and 41 abstained.
Seconds after the vote, the assembly hall erupted in cheers and whistles, with Abbas delegates unfurling a Palestinian flag and donning traditional black-and-white checkered scarves.
We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel, Abbas told the assembly in his speech before the vote. Rather, we came here to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine.
The vote came on the anniversary of the vote in 1947 when the U.N. adopted the resolution that partitioned what was then Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.
In the Palestinians territories, celebration began even before the vote was completed, with rallies in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip a rare show of unity for the rival political factions, Fatah and Hamas. In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Palestinians watched Abbas speech projected on the side of Israels massive security barrier.
I was afraid all day that something would happen, that Israel would find a way to deter us again. I was scared to celebrate, but now I am here and my heart is overflowing, said Miryam Foudi, 19, a student in Ramallah, the West Bank city that is the seat of the Palestinian Authority. To other countries this is such a small thing. But to us it is a big thing. It is the first time the word state will be next to our names for the whole world to see.
The vote underlined how out of step the United States is from the international community when it comes to policy toward the Palestinians. Analysts have criticized the U.S. administration for refusing to talk to the Islamist militants of Hamas while simultaneously undermining onetime ally Abbas, whose secular Fatah movement is now considered the weaker of the two factions. U.S. officials had argued that Abbas unilateral bid for semi-statehood was a distraction that would prevent the rejuvenation of the long-stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Apart from Israel and Canada, the only nations that heeded the Obama administrations demands for a no vote on Abbas bid were the Czech Republic, Nauru, Palau, Panama, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, a top contender to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke in a loud and forceful voice as she denounced the vote and insisted that it does not create a state where none indeed exists.
Todays grand pronouncements will soon fade, Rice 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.
European nations either voted in favor of the resolution or abstained. Germany said it had abstained because it disagreed with Israels refusal to stop building settlements in the West Bank that international law suggests are illegal. Great Britain said it had abstained, instead of approving the resolution, because it disagreed with Abbas unwillingness to return to the negotiating table without preconditions.