RAMALLAH – In what is thought to be the largest Palestinian political rally since president Yasser Arafat’s funeral in 2004, thousands of Palestinians gathered on Wednesday to show support for PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for statehood recognition at the UN.
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Palestinian flags both small and gigantic and posters filled the newly inaugurated Yasser Arafat Square – previously known as the Clock Square – in Ramallah, as well as in other major West Bank cities, to mark the occasion.
It has been a while since the red, black, green and white flag was the flag to be hoisted in a demonstration. Some said it was because the decision to go to the UN was unanimous among Palestinian parties, at least among those that are members of the PLO (Hamas isn’t).
In Ramallah, crowds of youth and elders chanted slogans calling for their right to have an independent state. Government offices, schools and institutions gave people the rest of the day off, to encourage them to attend the rallies.
Many transportation companies announced free rides to the rally venue in the center of Ramallah.
“Today is the day of law,” said attorney Ahmad al-Mughanni, dressed in his law robes.
This is the “time for Palestine,” he told The Jerusalem Post
There was an atmosphere of cautious optimism and celebration. Most people, however, were expecting an American veto.
“Less controversial states gained their UN membership after four or five times. How about us?” asked private sector employee Adnan Salman, 45. The Fatah party member considers the UN bid as a strong message: “After years of negotiations, Israel clearly does not want peace,” he said.
Salman believes the international community should pressure Israel to return to negotiations on better terms. “No peace is attainable when the Israeli government insists on settlements expansion,” he said.
Others were worried about the Palestinian reaction after the expected veto in the Security Council.
“I think Palestinians will be very mad and disappointed,” said Dana Abbad, 16. She said some people will probably react violently.
Salman disagrees. “My mother is a refugee; she dreams to go back to her village, but she has finally realized that a state on the 1967 borders is better than nothing... She would like to live in peace.”
A young man started to set an American flag on fire, expressing disappointment in the US position, but was convinced to stop.
PA Secretary-General Al-Tayib Abd al-Rahim, who was delivering a speech at the time, asked the man to put out the fire on the flag’s corner.
“We don’t seek to embarrass anyone; don’t let the settlers drag you into their violence,” Abd al-Rahim said.
Eventually, a man picked up the flag and walked away.
The rally locations were centered in the cities, to be far away from the IDF checkpoints and avoid any clashes with the Israelis.
Palestinian leaders have repeatedly called upon Palestinians to make sure that demonstrations for statehood are peaceful.
This concern to keep everything peaceful was also signaled by the considerable number of PA security personnel who were not directly involved in the events but were believed to be there to help maintain order.
Nevertheless, a few young boys went to the Kalandiya checkpoint, just south of Ramallah.
Minor clashes were reported.
A huge blue chair, modeled after the chairs of the UN General Assembly in New York, was placed in Ramallah’s central Manara Square, symbolizing the missing chair of the Palestinian state at the UN.
Hamza Dalia, 27, downplayed the importance of the UN bid.
“The main challenge for us is the end of occupation, and we are not going to achieve that by a UN recognition... The results of the ground will stay the same,” he said.
But Majed Mughannam, a Palestinian-American, said it would be a good chance for Palestinians to embarrass the United States in front of the world. “Let it be clear that the US doesn’t support the Palestinians’ right to get rid of occupation,” he said. It was the first visit by the 35-year-old to his homeland.
“I believe Abbas’s step is unilateral,” engineer Fahed M. told the Post
as he was leaving the rally. “If you want a viable state, you have to build it on strong foundations.”
The 30-year-old Hamas supporter believes the future state does not have a strong economy or clear borders. “Also, the external financial aid that we depend on might be cut at any moment,” he said.
The events in the West Bank are scheduled to peak on Friday, when Abbas delivers his speech at the UN. Television screens have been installed in the streets to broadcast the speech, in which he is expected to submit his application for full UN membership for the Palestinians.