UN Assembly snubs US and Israel; Palestine gets non-member status


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 Israelis closer to the goal they claim to seek two states living side by side, or increased Palestinian unity. Israel and 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 marginalized 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.

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.

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, but Palau, Panama and Micronesia.

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.

Another worry is the Palestinians may use the vote to seek membership in specialized agencies of the United Nations, a move that could have consequences for the financing of the international organizations as well as the Palestinian Authority itself.

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