Middle East

On The West Bank, Cheers For Mahmoud Abbas

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Tens of thousands of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank took to the streets Friday night to celebrate their formal bid for statehood at the United Nations. Watching on large television screens set up in city squares, Palestinians reacted with joy at the uncharacteristically impassioned speech given by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. From Ramallah, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro talks with host Scott Simon.


Tens of thousands of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank took to the streets last night to celebrate their formal bid for statehood at the United Nations. Watching on large television screens set up in city squares, Palestinians reacted with joy at the uncharacteristically impassioned speech delivered by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was in Ramallah watching the speech. She joins us now from Jerusalem. Lourdes, thanks for being with us.

LOURDES GARCIA: You're welcome.

SIMON: And what did you see last night? What was the mood?

GARCIA: Well, I think, Scott, a lot of people were skeptical before Abbas's speech. Palestinians know the bid will be defeated by the Security Council because of the U.S. veto. They know the situation between the Israeli and Palestinian governments is difficult and acrimonious, and looking unlikely to improve, and yet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas really delivered a speech that spoke to Palestinians last night.

In the crowd where I was, there were people with tears in their eyes, Scott, especially when Abbas exclaimed enough, enough, enough. That really resonated with the frustrated population here. And the other thing is, Palestinians are used to seeing the Israeli prime minister getting multiple standing ovations, for example, in the U.S. Congress. The Palestinians I spoke with said it was really gratifying to see the warm reception Abbas got at the U.N. in the world community.

After the speech in Ramallah, people waving Palestinian flags jumped into their cars sort of spontaneously and started parading through the streets. So there was genuine jubilation.

SIMON: And what was the reaction you saw in the crowds in Ramallah to Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks that followed?

GARCIA: Well, quite frankly, Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks were not shown in Ramallah on the giant TV screens. People, of course, were able to see his speech in their homes, but they were not broadcast anywhere where I was. They did show them in one area that we know of, and Palestinians threw their shoes at the screen in one village. But other than that, they just — it simply wasn't shown.

People were really out there to see what Mahmoud Abbas had to say and not what Prime Minister Netanyahu had to say. Of course, Israelis were watching even though it was the evening here, and during the Shabbat time. Israelis know that they face a tough and largely unsympathetic audience at the U.N., and so Netanyahu's speech was forceful. It laid out Israel security fears, it called for the resumption of talks, and it laid out what Israelis say was the Israeli position.

And while many in Israel thought want this issue to be settled, they're not in principal opposed to a Palestinian state, but what happened, you know, after the Gaza withdrawal where Hamas took over and thousands of rockets were launched from there, it has really scarred the population, the Israeli population, and so they really felt that Mr. Netanyahu laid out their worries that the same could happen in the West Bank.

SIMON: Do you know anything, Lourdes, about reaction in Gaza?

GARCIA: What happened in Gaza was really in marked contrast to what happened in the West Bank, and it made, frankly, the Hamas rulers in Gaza look pretty much out of touch with the average Palestinians. In fact, Hamas actually clamped down on celebrations in Gaza, stopped cafes from broadcasting the speech, and the reaction sort of sounded very similar to Israel's. They basically accused Abbas of raising Palestinian hopes and then only to eventually be dashing them, and Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement are, you know, are fierce rivals, and yesterday was a clear boost for the Palestinian leader Abbas, with Hamas the clear losers.

SIMON: With the celebratory dust now settling, there's a long road ahead to a second state, isn't there?

GARCIA: I mean, it's a long road and it's not really clear what's going to happen, first of all with the U.N. bid. That could take weeks to get voted on, and in any case it won't pass because the U.S. veto. So there's still a lot of diplomatic wrangling ahead. The Quartet, the U.S., the U.N., Russia and the European Union who deals with Mideast Peace released a statement last night calling for the resumption of talks within four weeks, and they're trying to sort of put a framework in so that these talks can restart.

But, you know, behind the scenes, both sides have already expressed their doubts, Israelis and Palestinians say the impasse is still there. Palestinians want there to be a full settlement freeze on building in the West Bank, and East Jerusalem before talks start, and Israeli says there should be no preconditions. So it's a non-starter it seems.

SIMON: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

GARCIA: You're welcome.

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