Hamas changes its tune, celebrates Palestinian UN bid

Thousands of Palestinians from rival factions take to the streets of West Bank cities ahead of landmark vote

Palestinian schoolgirls hold pictures of President Mahmoud Abbas with Yasser Arafat, flowers and olive branches during a rally supporting the Palestinian UN bid for observer state status, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (photo credit:AP/Nasser Ishtayeh)
Palestinian schoolgirls hold pictures of President Mahmoud Abbas with Yasser Arafat, flowers and olive branches during a rally supporting the Palestinian UN bid for observer state status, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (photo credit:AP/Nasser Ishtayeh)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s leader, having failed to block the Palestinians from taking their quest for a state to the UN, defiantly declared Thursday that they would have to back down from long-held positions if they ever hope to gain independence.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, thousands of Palestinians from rival factions celebrated in the streets of the West Bank. In a departure from previous opposition, the Hamas militant group, which rules the Gaza Strip, said it wouldn’t interfere with the UN bid, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations.

Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned to the United Nations after four years of deadlock in Mideast peace efforts. While the initiative, all but certain to pass, will not immediately bring about independence, Palestinians hope the strong international endorsement will give them more leverage in future negotiations with Israel.

Speaking to reporters in New York, Abbas said diplomatic pressure to abandon the initiative was “tremendous,” but that he would not be deterred.

“We said our word, and the vote will take place,” he said.

The Palestinians’ jubilant mood contrasted sharply with Israel’s weak diplomatic position at the world body.

Intense US efforts failed to sway the Palestinians from going ahead with their plan. And one by one, European allies, including heavyweights like France, rejected Israeli appeals to oppose the Palestinian resolution. Germany, a close ally of Israel, said it will abstain.

The resolution calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a pullback to the 1967 lines, saying it would threaten Israeli security. Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are now home to some 500,000 Israelis.

Netanyahu warned the Palestinians on Thursday that they would not win their hoped-for state until they recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, declare an end to their conflict with Israel and agree to security arrangements that will protect Israel.

“The resolution in the UN today won’t change anything on the ground,” Netanyahu declared. “It won’t advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off.”

The Palestinians have resisted demands to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, saying it would undermine the claims of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants scattered across the world.

Israel says Palestinian demands for refugees to return to what is now Israel is an illegitimate attempt to undermine the Jewish character of their state. Instead, Israel says refugees should be resettled in a future Palestine alongside Israel.

The Palestinians have turned to the UN in frustration with nearly 20 years of negotiations have that have foundered under the weight of mutual violence, intransigence and failure of will.

Last year, they sought full-fledged membership in the UN but failed to muster Security Council support. This year, they set their sights lower, to a lesser status of non-member state, but are assured of approval in the sympathetic General Assembly.

The date they chose is emotionally charged. On Nov. 29, 1947, the UN decided to partition what was then British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, but Arabs rejected it, and the Palestinians were left without a state.

General Assembly recognition on Thursday of Palestine will not actually deliver a state, end the Israeli occupation or reunify the Palestinians, who are ruled by dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza.

But the Palestinians hope UN recognition will add weight to their claims.

Israel, like the US, argues that the Palestinians can win a state only through negotiations, and both countries mounted an aggressive campaign to try to head off the General Assembly vote.

“The path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah (in the West Bank), not New York,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters on Wednesday.

In a last-ditch move Wednesday, US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns promised Abbas that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if the Palestinian leader abandoned the statehood effort. Abbas refused.

The UN bid is crucial to maintaining his leadership. The Islamic militant Hamas group’s standing in the Arab world has risen as changes sweep the Mideast, while Abbas’ Fatah movement, which governs the West Bank, has been sidelined and marginalized, in large part because of his failure to deliver a state through diplomacy. Hamas got a major boost earlier this month, claiming victory after battling Israel in eight days of hostilities that ended with an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.

The rival Palestinian governments emerged after Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, reducing his control to parts of the West Bank.

Hamas supporters took part in Thursday’s celebrations. In the West Bank city of Hebron, some in a crowd of several thousand raised green Hamas flags, while in the city of Ramallah, senior figures of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two militant groups normally opposed to Abbas, addressed the crowd.

“It’s the right step in the right direction,” Nasser al-Shaer, a former deputy prime minister from Hamas, said of the UN bid.

In Hamas-ruled Gaza, several thousand took to the streets, most of them Abbas loyalists. Marchers hoisted Palestinian flags and chanted, “We want our state, today is our date.”

While the US focused on pressuring Abbas, Israel concentrated on trying to line up European powers against the measure. But European nations were more interested in bolstering the moderate Abbas in his rivalry with Hamas.

The Palestinians did not need the European backing to win the vote for their bid. Support from most of the developing world, including Arab and Muslim states, assures them an automatic majority in the General Assembly.

But they hope that breaking down the resistance of European heavyweights will further isolate Israel diplomatically, lead to further international criticism of Israeli settlements, and renew pressure on it to withdraw from territories the Palestinians claim for a state.

As potential support fell away, Israel tempered its threats of retaliation, appearing to back off from plans to immediately punish the Palestinians.

Months ago it suggested new settlement construction would be Israel’s response to the Palestinians’ statehood bid. Now officials are saying they will wait to see whether the Palestinians use their new standing to pursue war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court, a UN body. If so, they threaten punitive measures but have not given details.

Backing for the Palestinians’ appeal to the UN came from an unexpected quarter Thursday, when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying the Palestinian request “is congruent with the basic concept” of the two-state solution.

“Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it,” said Olmert, according to The Daily Beast news website. An Olmert spokesman did not return a call for comment.

Olmert, Abbas and their teams conducted peace talks in 2007 through early 2009, but never clinched a deal.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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