Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied across the West Bank on Wednesday in a massive show of support for the campaign to become a member state at the United Nations.
The rallies, widely hailed as the biggest public gatherings since the end of the second Palestinian uprising in 2005, are part of the build up to Friday, when president Mahmud Abbas is to request UN membership for a state of Palestine on the lines which existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.
“Tens of thousands of Palestinians are taking part in rallies across the West Bank,” Palestinian security services spokesman Adnan Damiri told AFP.
A spokesman for Abbas praised the rallies.
“The Palestinian masses have come out in numbers in the Palestinian Territories to support the process and the determined Palestinian political position, despite all the pressure to deter us from applying for membership of a State of Palestine,” Nabil Abu Rudeina said from New York.
The Israeli army said there were isolated incidents of stone throwing, while Palestinian medics said a 13-year-old boy lost an eye when troops fired a teargas cartridge at stonethrowers in Qalandia near Ramallah.
But it was a far cry from the widespread unrest which had been expected by many in the Israeli establishment.
AFP correspondents across the West Bank said there was a festive atmosphere as people poured onto the streets waving Palestinian flags in support of the bid, which has sparked diplomatic drama in New York.
Officials did not give a specific breakdown of numbers but AFP correspondents estimated there were around 15,000 people each in Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron, with another 10,000 on the streets of Bethlehem.
In Ramallah, the political capital of the West Bank, the city centre was packed with crowds flocking to join the “festival of support” for the UN bid.
“We demand that the world recognise our state because it is the implementation of a promise you gave us more than 60 years ago,” Ramallah governor Leila Ghanam told the crowd.
She was referring to resolution 181 which was passed by the United Nations in November 1947 and called for Mandate Palestine to be divided into two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state.
Downtown Ramallah was cordoned off to traffic and decked out with festive bunting. A huge white flag bore the words: “National Campaign for Palestine: State 194.” Crowds shouted: “The people want the liberation of Palestine!”
In Manara Square, excited crowds ululated as dancers performed a dabkeh, the traditional Palestinian dance, and a popular folk group sang “Declare it!” — all in the shadow of a giant blue chair built to look like those at the United Nations.
Further north, Nablus became a sea of flags as several thousand people converged on the city centre, holding up pictures of Abbas and former leader Yasser Arafat, another AFP correspondent said.
Among the crowd were Muslim, Christian and Samaritan clerics, with people waving Palestinian flags, the yellow banner of Abbas’s Fatah movement and white flags emblazoned with the 194 campaign logo.
Around 20 black-clad members of Neturei Karta, a small faction of ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose Israel’s existence, joined in to express their support for the UN membership bid.
Similar scenes were repeated in the ancient town of Jericho and the southern city of Hebron, where one man held a picture of US President Barack Obama labelled: “Obama: you are facing a moral test” referring to US plans to veto the Palestinian membership bid at the Security Council.
A poll released earlier this week showed that 83 percent of the public support the bid, although many fear the economic backlash which may follow the controversial move.
In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, rallies were banned in a move coordinated with Fatah. A small demonstration of dozens of women and one man was broken up by security forces who also detained several journalists.
Officials said security forces had been deployed across the West Bank to secure the demonstrations.
“All security forces, around 8,000 of them, are on top of their game today to keep the rallies peaceful and maintain the safety of the participants and public property,” spokesman Damiri told AFP.
The Israeli military said “around 200 people” had stoned troops near Hebron, while a dozen or so did the same at Qalandia crossing near Ramallah.
Palestinian medics said Ahid Wahdam, 13, lost an eye after he was hit by a rifle-fired tear gas cartridge at Qalandia.
The Israeli army could not immediately confirm details of the incident.