The UN General Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to make Palestine a non-member state, inflicting a major diplomatic defeat on the US and Israel.
The victory for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas triggered scenes of joy in the occupied West Bank, where thousands celebrated with bursts of gunfire and cheers in the city of Ramallah.
Abbas claimed what he called a UN “birth certificate” for a Palestinian state and got the backing of 138 countries in the 193-member assembly. Nine voted against and 41 abstained, while five did not participate.
The limited diplomatic upgrade came on the 65th anniversary of the UN partition vote, when the world body first divided the Holy Land between Jews and Arabs, who have battled over it ever since, most recently in this month’s deadly Gaza fighting.
A Palestinian flag was unfurled in the General Assembly as the victory was pronounced.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned what he called a “venomous” speech by the Palestinian leader.
The vote lifts the Palestinian Authority from an observer entity in the UN to a “non-member observer state” on a par with the Vatican.
Palestine has no vote in the General Assembly, but can now join UN agencies and potentially the International Criminal Court (ICC), where it could ask for a probe of Israeli actions, including during the recent fighting in Gaza.
Abbas said he hoped to use the status upgrade as a launchpad for renewed direct talks with Israel — frozen for more than two years — calling the resolution “the last chance to save the two-state solution.”
In a 22-minute speech laced with references to Israel’s battle with Gaza’s Hamas rulers this month, Abbas said time for an accord is running out.
“The rope of patience is shortening and hope is withering,” he said.
Afterwards, he said the vote had been “historic.”
“Tomorrow we begin the real war,” Abbas said at a celebration reception. “We have a long road and difficult road ahead of us. I don’t want to spoil our victory tonight, but the road ahead is still difficult.”
The US and Israel immediately condemned the vote, which US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called “counterproductive.”
US Ambassador Susan Rice sternly told the General Assembly that the resolution would be “an obstacle to peace” because it would not lead to a return to direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The US blocked a Palestinian application for full UN membership — made by Abbas in September last year — at the Security Council.
The Palestinian leader did not make any reference to the possibility of joining the ICC — a major worry for Israel, which fears a possible investigation.
However, Abbas said: “We will act responsibly and positively in our next steps, and we will work to strengthen cooperation with the countries and peoples of the world for the sake of a just peace.”
The vote could give a boost to Abbas, who faces a mounting challenge from Hamas after the Israeli offensive on Gaza, diplomats said.
Hamas welcomed the vote, calling it a “victory.”
“This is a new victory on the road to the liberation of Palestine and we congratulate ourselves,” Hamas official Ahmed Yussef said.
The Palestinians still face an uncertain future on the diplomatic stage.
Despite their greater access to the UN system, it is unclear whether they will be able to automatically join the ICC.