At the UN, Palestinians raise a flag but few hopes
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At the UN, Palestinians raise a flag but few hopes

On spot where Israeli diplomats last week introduced the UN to a Jewish sin-cleansing rite, Abbas declares 'Day of the Palestinian Flag'

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas raises the Palestinian flag as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon looks on during a ceremony in the rose garden of the UN's New York headquarters, September 30, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/TIMOTHY A. CLARY)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas raises the Palestinian flag as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon looks on during a ceremony in the rose garden of the UN's New York headquarters, September 30, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

NEW YORK — A week after the United Nations held its first official Tashlich ceremony, symbolically casting its sins into the East River, the world body on Wednesday for the first time hoisted the flag of the “State of Palestine,” which henceforth will fly alongside the flags of the UN’s 193 full members states in front of the iconic building near the East River.

At exactly the same place where eight days ago Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the Jewish sin-cleansing rite would afford his institution the opportunity to “reestablish its rightful role as a bastion of freedom and as a temple of peace,” hundreds of diplomats, journalists and onlookers heard the Palestinian leader glorifying Palestinian martyrs.

Where Rabbi Arthur Schneier, of Manhattan’s venerable Park East Synagogue, last week explained to Ban and several Western diplomats the meaning of the ancient tradition, now women clad in keffiyehs and the Palestinian national colors celebrated what they felt was a historic innovation.

A woman takes a photo as the Palestinian flag is raised outside UN Headquarters in New York, September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)
A woman takes a photo as the Palestinian flag is raised outside UN Headquarters in New York, September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)

The UN General Assembly had bestowed non-member observer state status on “Palestine” back in 2012, and Wednesday’s flag-raising ceremony had no diplomatic significance. But the event was certainly symbolic, and the dignitaries on hand firmly declared it a meaningful step toward actual Palestinian sovereignty. (Last month, 119 countries voted in favor of allowing the Palestinians to fly their flag at the UN. Eight states voted against and 45 abstained.)

The Palestinian flag is raised outside UN Headquarters in New York during the 70th session of the UN General Assembly on September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)
The Palestinian flag is raised outside UN Headquarters in New York during the 70th session of the UN General Assembly on September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)

The weather during the ceremony was appropriately uncertain. It took place under gloomy grey skies, but at least it remained dry. A few hours earlier, as Palestinian officials and UN personnel rehearsed the ceremony, it had been pouring.

Directly after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had finished his speech to the General Assembly, during which he decried the “racist, terrorist, colonial settlement of our land” by Israel, and announced that the “day is not far when we will raise the flag of Palestine in East Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Palestine,” he headed down to the adjacent Rose Garden. Several hundred journalists and diplomats were waiting there for him and for the ceremony to start.

The Palestinian flag is about to be raised outside UN Headquarters in New York during the 70th session of the UN General Assembly on September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)
The Palestinian flag is about to be raised outside UN Headquarters in New York during the 70th session of the UN General Assembly on September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)

Interest in the flag ceremony was actually greater than in Abbas’s speech; more people crowded the Rose Garden than had been in the plenum. Along with Ban and top ranking Palestinian officials — including Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat — the foreign ministers of Russia, France and Iran also attended.

The president of the GA, Denmark’s Mogens Lykketoft, expressed the hope that the ceremony would eventually lead the to creation of an “independent, viable, contiguous State of Palestine.”

Ban said the flag-raising served as a “reminder that symbols are important.” Now was the time for initiatives that could revive the peace process and lead to the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, he added, concluding his short remarks with “Mabrouk.”

The third and last speaker was Abbas.

“In the name of the Palestinian people, I raise the flag of the State of Palestine at the United Nations,” he declared. Calling it a “historical moment,” he encouraged Palestinians everywhere to “raise the flag of Palestine very high.” On this “proud day,” he hailed Palestinian “martyrs, prisoners and (those) wounded while giving their lives trying to raise this flag.” Speaking through an interpreter, he declared that September 30 shall henceforth be known as The Day of the Palestinian Flag.

A woman smiles and waves a small Palestinian flag as the Palestinian banner is raised outside UN Headquarters in New York during the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)
A woman smiles and waves a small Palestinian flag as the Palestinian banner is raised outside UN Headquarters in New York during the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 30, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)

After his remarks, Abbas handed a folded flag to a uniformed UN official, who slowly hoisted it on the flagpole, to rather reserved cheering. With so many spectators in attendance, one would might expected a louder and more exuberant reaction.

As soon as the flag arrived at the top of the pole, the ceremony was over and most of the crowd rapidly left the Rose Garden. Some Arab officials stuck around to give interviews, though not — of course — to Israeli reporters.

Even some Western officials were a little reluctant to discuss what had brought them here and what it meant.

“It’s a ceremony, why do I have to talk about it,” a diplomat from Jamaica moaned.

What’s the significance of this event, I asked a senior Norwegian official: Is it entirely meaningless given that nothing will change on the ground? Is it a drop of hope in an ocean of despair for desperate people? “I’m not going on record today,” he replied.

“It’s a historic moment. It represents an important step toward Palestinian statehood,” said a more forthcoming German official. “Sure,” he acknowledged, “nothing on the ground is going to change. But it’s very symbolic.”

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