Thousands of Palestinians gathered in central Ramallah Friday night to hear Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speak to the United Nations and formally announce the bid for UN statehood membership.
Mr. Abbas’ fulfillment of his promise to launch the UN bid garnered the leader – often criticized as uncompelling and being too willing to concede to Israel – newfound popularity among Palestinians.
“Now, I support him. For the last years I have opposed his polices,” says Omar Saleh, standing with his mother in a sea of Palestinian flags. “He has given the Israelis too many chances and not given any hope to the Palestinians.”
Abbas has led the Palestinian Authority since January 2005 and has struggled to step outside the shadow of his iconic, charismatic predecessor, Yasser Arafat. Abbas has always had a core of supporters from his leading Fatah movement, but many Palestinians saw him as weak and too cooperative with Israel and the United States. Earlier this year, documents related to the peace process were leaked that showed Palestinian negotiators under his leadership offering Israel compromises that many Palestinians were unwilling to accept.
But his fulfillment today of his promise to go to the UN Security Council – against American wishes – has gained him a groundswell of support. Among the chants coming from the crowd in Ramallah was Abbas’ nickname, Abu Mazen. Many held posters of their president.
“With 18 years of negotiations and false promises, he is giving the final ultimatum to the world and the UN,” says Mr. Saleh, adding that he has long felt negotiations served the Palestinian Authority and Israel more than they served the Palestinian people. “Now he has proven he is honest.”
In the square, which was recently re-named after Mr. Arafat, several-stories-high posters of Abbas and Arafat hung from the buildings.
“He was quiet for a long period and he didn’t do anything,” says 23-year-old Mohammed Barakat, walking through the crowd in Arafat Square. Now, however, “he’s like [Mohandas] Gandhi. A hero in everyone’s eyes… I hope they will give him what he wants, an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 1967."
But while Ramallah was a raucous scene of jubilation Friday, with crowds rivaling those of Arafat's funeral in 2004, Gaza City was quiet. Though many in Gaza support the move, Hamas, which rules Gaza and opposes the statehood bid, prohibited public demonstrations on Friday.
Activists and journalists gathered at The Gallery, a coffee shop and restaurant in Gaza City, to watch the speech on a screen in the garden. About halfway through, Hamas internal security showed up, turned off the projector, arrested the owner, and forced everyone to leave, witnesses said.
At another coffee shop, Gazans watched the speech on a screen indoors, considered safer than the open-air garden at The Gallery. The room erupted in applause when Mahmoud Abbas quoted the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “Standing here, staying here, permanent here, eternal here, and we have one goal, one, one: to be.”
After the speech, some Gazans drove through the streets waving Palestinian flags, but internal security forces were out in force, confiscating flags and peering into passing cars to make sure the occupants didn’t show any signs of supporting Abbas. In Gaza City’s main square, dozens of people, some holding Palestinian flags, began to gather. Police quickly arrived and quelled the budding celebration, yelling at the crowd to leave and threatening arrest.
One man wondered aloud what crime he was committing by raising the national flag. “It’s my right to demonstrate peacefully, it’s legal, and it’s just the Palestinian flag,” he said. But police told him and others to hide their flags and leave, or face arrest, he said.
Elsewhere in Gaza City, life went on as normal. Most residents were either disinterested or too afraid to celebrate. Three young men on the street said they had watched the speech on television at home, and were bitter that they could not openly express their approval. “I’m so upset, because in the West Bank they are celebrating, but here we cannot do that,” said Ahmed Ayad, a university student. “I’m so disappointed that I can’t carry the Palestinian flag and walk on the street. We aren’t allowed to feel the same happiness the others do.”