UNITED NATIONS — The excitement was palpable. The guest and media seating were packed. Every delegation seemed to be in full attendance down on the General Assembly floor.
While Israel, the US and some European states warned that the United Nations vote to upgrade Palestine to a nonmember observer state signaled a move away from negotiations, for most in the hall, diplomats, journalists and visitors alike, it felt like history.
After blunt speeches by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, and an aggressive speech by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that elicited more than one “Allahu akbar” shout from the gallery, the president of the General Assembly, Serb politician Vuk Jeremic, called for the vote.
Hundreds of people in the hall leaned forward in their seats to watch the two enormous election boards on the front wall.
As the lights started to flicker into life — green for yes, red for no, orange to abstain — it was obvious in seconds that there would be no surprises. An overwhelming sheet of green soon covered the screen, with scattered orange and exceedingly rare appearances of red: 138 in favor, 9 against, 41 abstentions.
The hall erupted into thrilled applause that spread from the guest and press section to the diplomats on the hall floor. A line of diplomats formed at Mahmoud Abbas’s seat at the Palestinian table, with many, especially from Muslim states, waiting to embrace the PA president.
“We’ve waited for this day for so long,” gushed a middle-aged Palestinian man clad in a kefiyya in the guest gallery.
“It’s a statement from the international community that the Palestinians deserve to have their rights, their independence, their state,” he added in halting English, before declining to give his identity to an Israeli news outlet.
Many Palestinians and journalists walked out of the hall giddy with excitement, chattering about the welcome French support for the resolution, or the more exotic Singaporean vote against. It was an achievement, all agreed.
Perhaps an hour after the vote, donning checkered kefiyyas and watched over by black-clad police, some 200 Palestinians, journalists and well-wishers — including a British MP, a handful of anti-Zionist Neturei Karta Hassidim and other Western activists and supporters — gathered on the first floor of the UN building for the opening of an exhibit of Palestinian artists.
A shout went up as the group caught sight of Abbas approaching in a large retinue from the other end of the floor. The applause seemed genuine and lasted for a long time.
“It feels historic,” said a lanky young man rolling on his tiptoes to catch sight of the Palestinian leader. He was a Palestinian living in New York, he said, a member of a proud diaspora.
“In Palestine,” he added, “Palestinians will feel different in the morning. They will wake up and feel like they live in a new condition, an actual state under occupation, not disputed territory under something that isn’t occupation. It gives clarity for all the Palestinians, in Palestine and outside.”
As Abbas approached the small podium next to the exhibit, his delegation of suited men took up positions to the side of the crowd.
“This is a good opportunity to come back to the negotiation table,” was the terse reply to The Times of Israel from one member of the delegation who declined to speak further.
A young journalist from a Palestinian news outlet in Ramallah was the only one in the hall to speak about Israelis.
“This vote could be the proof for all countries, and for Israel first of all, that Palestinians are looking to get rid of the occupation in peaceful ways, not violent ways. That proof might lead to negotiations and peace,” he said, and, like the other attendees, declined to give his name to an Israeli outlet.
“The main conflict between Fatah and Hamas is about the best way to get our land back. When we find the peaceful way, it will empower the peaceful option. Most Israelis support that, I know. So I don’t know why Israel disagreed with this step. It’s part of the solution between Fatah and Hamas, and also between Israel and Palestine.”
The attendees were not a representative sample from the Palestinian street, certainly, but neither were they all members of the PA government.
The young journalist seemed to speak for most when he said, “We are tired of the past 65 years. We are looking for a country. And I think this is the first step to achieve this dream. It’s a first step. We’re sort of closer to a country. Closer than before.”