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Palestinians make history at UN

September 23, 2011

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hands over a formal letter for Palestine to be admitted as a state to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon during the 66th UN General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York. -AFP Photo

UNITED NATIONS: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas made history in his people's long quest for statehood as he formally asked the United Nations on Friday to admit Palestine as a full member state.

Snubbing fierce opposition from Israel and its regional ally the United States, Abbas handed the application letter to UN chief Ban Ki-moon at 1535 GMT buoyed by more than 120 nations which have already recognized a Palestinian state.

He made the request in a letter, handed to Ban in a white folder adorned with a Palestinian eagle logo.

“The American administration did everything in its power to disrupt our project, but we are going through with it despite the obstacles and the pressure because we are asking for our rights,” Abbas said late Thursday.

“There are small countries in the world that have gained their freedom and independence, but we still haven't got ours,” he told the Palestinian community in New York.

Reaction from Israel was swift, with a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling AFP, “We regret the step.”

Ban will now pass the landmark request to the UN Security Council, but a vote on admitting the Palestinians as a full member state could take weeks, leaving time for more diplomatic wrangling.

Palestinians were seized by the historic nature of the moment, which comes more than six decades after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Across city centers in the West Bank giant television screens has been set up so residents could watch Abbas deliver his historic address to the 193 member states of the UN General Assembly.

In Ramallah, the political capital of the West Bank, many cars were flying the Palestinian flag, and posters of Abbas and his late predecessor Yasser Arafat festooned the streets.

But fearing a spurt of violence, some 22,000 Israeli police and border police were on high alert with forces deployed along the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, in annexed east Jerusalem, and around Arab Israeli towns.

In a sign of the tensions, a Palestinian was shot dead in clashes with Israeli troops that erupted after settlers attacked a village near Nablus on the West Bank.

Besides dealing a blow to Israel's position in future peace negotiations, UN recognition of a Palestinian state could allow increased international rights, which some fear the Palestinians may use to launch legal action against Israeli military action.

Israeli officials have warned of harsh retaliatory measures if the Palestinians succeed in their bid, including a halt to funding for the Palestinian Authority. Right-wing members of the government have gone so far as to call for annexation of the West Bank.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were due to make almost back-to-back addresses to the UN General Assembly around midday (1600 GMT) to set out their opposing visions of how to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Last-minute bargaining to divert the Palestinians from their course resumed Friday with a meeting of negotiators from the Middle East Quartet, the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations.

Middle East envoy Tony Blair said Thursday's talks ended around 530 GMT, and a senior US official confirmed “quartet envoys are meeting this morning (Friday).”

They are trying to hammer out a possible statement which could bring the two sides back to direct talks which have stalled since September 2010.

The United States has vowed to veto the bid at the UN Security Council, with the Palestinians needing to win the backing of nine of the 15 council members.

If that bid fails, they may well seek to be admitted as a non-member observer state by the General Assembly.

A French suggestion that Palestine be given an intermediate status as a United Nations observer nation remained on the table, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe's spokesman said Friday despite what he said were “Israeli reservations”.

US President Barack Obama insisted to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday that only new Israeli-Palestinian talks could bring lasting peace.

His speech sparked angry demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza, with Palestinians accusing Obama of a double standard for praising the Arab Spring protests while seeking to block Palestinian dreams of statehood.

Abbas was to leave New York after giving his UN speech to return to the Palestinian territories for consultations on the next step forward.