Crowds welcome Palestinian leader
RAMALLAH, West Bank
The Palestinian president returned triumphantly to the West Bank on Sunday, receiving a boisterous welcome from thousands of cheering supporters at a rally celebrating his people’s new acceptance to the United Nations.
An Israeli decision to cut off a cash transfer to the financially troubled Palestinian Authority, following an earlier decision to build thousands of new homes in Jewish settlements, failed to put a damper on the celebrations.
But Palestinian officials acknowledged they were undecided on what to do with their newfound status, and they were waiting for upcoming Israeli elections and new ideas from President Barack Obama before deciding how to proceed.
Outside the headquarters of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, some 5,000 people thronged a square, hoisted Palestinian flags and cheered their leader’s return from New York. Large posters of Abbas, whose popularity had plummeted in recent months, adorned nearby buildings.
“We now have a state,” Abbas said to wild applause. “The world has said loudly, ‘Yes to the state of Palestine.’”
The United Nations General Assembly last week overwhelmingly endorsed an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in the 1967 war.
The move to upgrade the Palestinians to a nonmember observer state does not change much on the ground, but it carries deep potential significance.
The vote amounted to an international endorsement of the Palestinian position on future border arrangements with Israel and an overwhelming condemnation of Israeli settlements in the areas claimed by the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects a return to Israel’s 1967 lines. Israel remains in control in parts of the West Bank and considers east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital, an integral part of its capital.
Israel also continues to restrict access to Gaza. Israel withdrew seven years ago from the coastal strip, and it now is ruled by Hamas Islamic militants who regularly fire rockets at Israel.
Israel, backed by the U.S., campaigned strongly against the statehood measure, accusing the Palestinians of trying to bypass direct peace negotiations, which it said were the only viable path to a Palestinian state.
The Israeli lobbying efforts failed miserably. Just eight other countries voted with Israel, and even its closest allies in Europe, including Germany, Italy, France and Britain, either abstained or voted with the Palestinians.
Israel responded strongly and swiftly. The following day, it said it would start drawing up plans to build thousands of settlement homes, including the first development on a crucial corridor east of Jerusalem.
Although the project likely is years away, if it happens at all, the announcement struck a defiant tone.
The U.S., Britain, France and other European states all denounced the plan.
On Sunday, the Israeli government delivered another blow, saying it would withhold more than $100 million in funds it transfers to the Palestinians each month.
Instead, it said the money — taxes and customs duties that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians — would be used to pay off its debts to Israeli companies.