Palestinians gather in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Palestinians gather in the West Bank city of Ramallah to watch a wide screen relaying live footage of a historic bid for statehood by Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas on September 23. Palestinians basked in the joy of their historic UN bid on Saturday, but difficult questions about the move's consequences and the future of their dream of statehood remained. © Alessio Romenzi - AFP/File
Palestinians gather in the West Bank city of Ramallah
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Sara Hussein, AFP
Last updated: October 19, 2011

Palestinian UN joy, but uncertainty lies ahead

Palestinians basked in the joy of their historic UN bid on Saturday, but difficult questions about the move's consequences and the future of their dream of statehood remained.

The membership push prompted the peacemaking international Quartet to offer a new proposal for negotiations, but it lacked the preconditions sought by the Palestinians and Israel remained cautious about the plan's timetable.

The contrast between the joyous scenes in the West Bank and the silence in the Gaza Strip, where the ruling Hamas movement opposed the bid and stymied celebration rallies, served to underscore deep Palestinian political divisions.

On Friday night, seemingly intractable obstacles were set aside by many in the West Bank, eager to forget the lack of progress towards peace and revel in a rare moment of optimism and pride.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians packed into the centres of cities across the West Bank to cheer their president Mahmud Abbas as he urged the UN General Assembly to approve their historic membership request.

As he waved a copy of the formal bid from the UN podium, thousands broke into ecstatic chants of "God is great!" and "With our souls and our blood we will defend Palestine!"

But as the celebratory mood recedes, Palestinians now have to confront a series of tough questions about what comes next.

Shortly after Abbas's speech, the members of the peacemaking Quartet -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia -- announced a new negotiations proposal, calling for talks to start within a month and for a deal before the end of 2012.

However, there was no mention of an Israeli settlement freeze or a clear framework for such talks, without which the Palestinians say they will not return to the negotiating table.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government's official position on the Quartet's proposal would be announced in the coming days.

"If the Quartet calls for the resumption of direct negotiations without preconditions, I think it's an important thing," Netanyahu told Channel 10 from the United States.

Asked about the chances of reaching a deal by the end of next year, he remained cautious.

"If there is a willingness to conclude (the peace deal), it will succeed, because it is promising (but) if the will does not exist, it will not work," said the Israeli premier.

Deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon told Israeli public radio the Quartet timetable was "not sacred."

Meanwhile, Abbas said he wants to amend an "unfair" 1994 agreement on economic ties with Israel, pledging also to resume talks with Hamas.

"We want to amend the Paris economic agreement between the PLO and Israel because it is not fair," Abbas told reporters en route to Amman, Jordan from the UN General Assembly.

"It (the agreement) contains restrictions that affect the Palestinian economy and hinder its development. The Paris agreement does not allow Palestinians to promote their economy."

Abbas was referring to the Protocol on Economic Relations signed in Paris in 1994 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

He went on to say he was committed to opening the "next step in a comprehensive dialogue" with Hamas.

"Some Hamas officials opposed the (UN) approach by the Palestinian leadership and had reservations, but overall, I received support among leaders" from the movement, said Abbas.

"We will discuss reconciliation with Hamas but also the prospects of the Palestinian movement," he said.

The contrast between the scenes in the West Bank and the enforced quiet in Gaza also underscored the continuing division between Abbas's Fatah party and the Hamas movement, despite the reconciliation deal they signed in May.

In Gaza, some expressed support for Abbas's speech.

"I take pride in president Abu Mazen and the power of his speech before the whole world; he wasn't scared of America or (US President Barack) Obama and step by step there will be a state of Palestine in spite of our enemies," said Ziad Abu al-Jaysh.

But others, including an employee of the Hamas police who declined to give his name, slammed the address.

"Abu Mazen's speech was weak because he went alone and he didn't agree with the other parties. This speech had no substance and the world will not give us a state except by force, the force of weapons," he said.

Even among those who supported the bid, excitement was tempered by the expectation the United States would block its approval, either by persuading enough Security Council members to abstain or vote against it, or by simply vetoing it.

There was also the spectre of punitive measures against Abbas and the Palestinians as a whole, with large majorities telling pollsters this week they fear both Israeli and US sanctions.

In Ramallah, taxi driver Ghassan Zawahri said economic sanctions would be "the worst scenario."

But Lama Jerdat, a student in the city, was confident life would go on.

"I expect the Israelis will impose economic sanctions, but when we are one people with one country we will be stronger than everyone," she said.

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