RAMALLAH, West Bank — Fatigued more than excited, residents of Ramallah awaited a UN vote Thursday night recognizing “Palestine” as a non-member observer state.
Hours before the vote, a massive stage was placed in Ramallah’s central Clock Square with a large screen, on which a speech by President Mahmoud Abbas would later be projected to a cheering crowd. A backdrop depicted the images of Abbas and deceased leader Yasser Arafat standing behind a UN podium, a photo of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock in between them.
A young university graduate roaming the empty square with a camera around his neck, his hair spiked up with gel, claimed he was not excited about the UN bid.
‘It’s all nonsense,’ said Khaled, a 29-year-old unemployed journalist who told The Times of Israel he would not be celebrating at night. ‘It’ll be like the Vatican. Have you ever heard of the Vatican doing anything?’
“We don’t want ’67,” he said before running off with a group of friends, referring to the territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War. “We want all of Palestine.”
In nearby Manarah Square, banners hung by the PLO’s Department for Refugee Affairs reminded Abbas that he must not give up on the “right” of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they had left in 1948, located in areas currently inside Israel.
“It’s all nonsense,” said Khaled, a 29-year-old unemployed journalist who told The Times of Israel he would not be celebrating at night. “It’ll be like the Vatican. Have you ever heard of the Vatican doing anything?”
“We’re not against it,” he added quickly. “As long as it annoys the Jews, that’s also something.”
By early evening, the mood in Ramallah was a mix of apathy and pessimism. Time and again, people on the street expressed little faith that the UN bid would change their lives in any meaningful way.
“This state, where will its borders be? Will it have an army? A currency?” they echoed.
Abbas had already tried to attain UN recognition for full statehood at the Security Council in September, 2011, but could not muster the votes even to prompt a threatened American veto. That failure, coupled with the recent conflagration in Gaza, put a damper on the mood here.
But Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, insisted that the UN bid is much more than a symbolic attempt to spite Israel.
“We need this move in order to have a genuine political process and break the power asymmetry with Israel; bilateral [negotiations] benefited only the Israeli side.” Ahsrawi told The Times of Israel, calling the UN bid “a corrective move.”
“Before Israel does permanent damage we must say ‘stop’,” she added.
Sabri Saidam, deputy speaker of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, was more conciliatory toward Israel.
“This is not a declaration of war toward Israel but rather a declaration of peace,” he told The Times of Israel. “We’ve been negotiating for 20 years to no avail. Now it’s time for us to return to the main international arena, the UN.”
Back in Clock Square, Ismail, a 57 year-old engineer who had spent 15 years studying and living in New York, said he came to protest the American vote against the Palestinian bid. He donned a Palestinian kaffiyeh around his neck and a pin of the Palestinian flag on his lapel. Ismail printed a sign reading “Obama & Netanyahu = values,” citing a recent speech in which the American President said he shared values with the Israeli prime minister.
“We’re used to throwing stones,” Ismail told The Times of Israel, referring to the most common form of Palestinian resistance to Israel during the first intifada of the 1980s and 90s. “Now it’s time for us to try something else.”
“This celebration here is psychological,” Ismail admitted. “It’s meant to lift people’s spirits and help them forget the images from Gaza. To ease their sorrow.”
‘This celebration here is psychological,” Ismail added, “it’s meant to lift people’s spirits and help them forget the images from Gaza. To ease their sorrow.’
As the hour of Abbas’s speech approached, the square began to fill and Ismail was no longer alone. A singer onstage chanted patriotic songs of longing to a land “taken by the Zionists,” and to Arafat.
“Abu Mazen, O pride of the Arabs,” he sang, “our flag will blow at the UN.”
Behind a row of policemen in striped dark blue uniforms, celebrants waved Palestinian flags along with the yellow of Fatah, the Green of Hamas and the red of the Popular Front. The odd Egyptian flag could also seen in the crowd.
Circles of young men began to form (local women were hardly present), dancing the Dabke to the beat of a singer onstage. The atmosphere turned festive, almost electric, if not for one man who wryly noted, “Take away the police and the political activists, and there’s hardly anyone here.”
Bursts of cheers erupted with each name of a supportive country read out by the Sudanese speaker at the UN and broadcast on the large screen. The echo of a similar UN General Assembly vote 65 years earlier was inescapable.
“We possess the right,” chanted the singer onstage. “We will return to our homes.”
As the Israeli ambassador to the UN took the stage in New York, the Ramallah crowd jeered and then began to disperse, but the celebratory honking from passing cars continued late into the night.