Why Palestine Won Big at the U.N.

The factors that have lined up support for Abbas' bid — and how winning will affect relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis

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Palestinians gather to celebrate and listen to Hamas leader Ismail Haniya give a speech in the Gaza Strip on Nov. 22, 2012

An instructive week after Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip tested Israel on the battlefield, the pacifist politicians who govern the West Bank notched a significant diplomatic win without much of a fight at all. Just before 5 p.m. New York time, the U.N. General Assembly voted 138 to 9 to bring Palestine aboard as a “nonmember state.” Another 41 nations abstained. Assured of passage by a whopping majority, Israel and the U.S. noted their objections mildly and mostly for the record, their effort to limit the fallout for the Jewish state itself limited in the wake of Gaza.

The status of “nonmember state” — emphasis on the “state” puts Palestine on the same level of diplomatic recognition as the Vatican, which is technically a sovereign entity. The Holy See has its own ambassadors but, for a few, may be better known for its busy post office off St. Peter’s Square, where tourists queue for what quiet thrills are afforded by a Vatican stamp canceled with the Pope’s postmark.

Palestine already has post offices. The particular marker of sovereignty it sought from the U.N. is even more bureaucratic: access to international organizations, especially the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Experts on international law say that, armed with the mass diplomatic recognition of the 150 or so nations it counts as supporters, Palestine will be in a position to bring cases against Israel, which has occupied the land defined as Palestine — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — since 1967.

(MORE: U.N. Recognition of Palestine: What Does It Mean for the Peace Process?)

The ICC, as it’s known, is on record as inclined to regard Israel’s more than 100 residential settlements on the West Bank as a crime of war. (The Jewish state pulled its settlers and soldiers out of Gaza in 2005 and argues that it no longer qualifies as its “occupier” under international law. Critics argue otherwise.) The physical presence of the settlements in other words would give Palestine a ready-made case to drag Israel before the court — or to threaten dragging it before the court. In the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the real power lies in the threat. But in his last U.N. address, in September, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began to lay the foundation for charges based not on the settlements but on the violent behavior of some individual settlers, who attack Palestinian neighbors and vandalize property and mosques. Settler attacks have skyrocketed in the past two years, according to U.N. monitors, and now account for the majority of the political violence on the West Bank, despite the lingering popular impression of Palestinian terrorism dating back decades. On the West Bank, at least, the reality has changed.

“If you were in my place, what would you do?” Abbas asked TIME in a recent interview. “We will not use force against the settlers. I can use the court, but it’s better for the Israelis not to push us to go to the court. They should put an end to these acts committed by the settlers.” His address to the General Assembly in advance of the vote on Thursday made the stakes plain enough: Abbas blasted Israel for “the perpetration of war crimes” and “its contention that it is above international law.”

Abbas’ effort actually got an unlikely boost from Israel’s eight-day offensive in Gaza. Operation Pillar of Defense focused on attacking Hamas, the militant Islamist group that has governed Gaza since 2007. Hamas, and more radical groups also operating in Gaza, lost scores of fighters and rocket launchers to Israeli air strikes. But by standing up to overwhelming Israeli military power for more than a week — and sending missiles toward major cities previously left untouched — the militants stirred a defiant pride and solidarity across the Palestinian community.

“The armed resistance of Hamas in Gaza gave the people hope and the impressions that this is the only way to fight against the ongoing occupation,” Majed Ladadwah, 46, told TIME 0n a Ramallah street, in the West Bank. “I can’t say they won,” said Ladadwah, speaking before Thursday’s balloting, “but they surely gained a lot of points for Hamas in the streets of Palestine.”

(MORE: After the Cease-Fire in Gaza, Will the Cyberwar Continue?)

That logic was pointed out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she visited Jerusalem to coax him toward a cease-fire. In the days that followed, Netanyahu’s government stopped threatening to punish Abbas for going to the U.N., a move Israel has called a threat to the peace process, which has been stalled for at least four years.

At the same time, European nations rallied around Abbas, intent on shoring up a leader who is secular, moderate — and already at political risk for cooperating with Israel to suppress armed resistance even before Gaza seized the world’s attention. Many of the “marquee” countries of Western Europe that Netanyahu had hoped to vote against Palestine statehood, like France, instead lined up behind Abbas. Others, including Britain, abstained, after seeking assurances that Palestine will not to go the ICC, or that negotiations with Israel will resume. Abbas has already promised the latter. Thursday morning brought news that Israel had lost Germany, a stalwart ally in the wake of the Holocaust, to the abstention column. “If there is a poor turnout, a poor vote, the radicals gain,” India’s U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri told reporters.

For their part, Palestinians overwhelmingly back the measure, despite an assortment of disappointments with Abbas — for wasting a year trying to get full U.N. membership in 2011 and for not visiting Gaza during the fighting, as foreign diplomats did. “We are for the U.N. bid because we anticipate this will help us legally to pursue our struggles and gain our rights,” said Ladadwah, the bank employee who spoke admiringly of Hamas’ stand in Gaza. Hamas itself said it backs the diplomatic effort, as do other factions.

“This is called resistance, whether armed resistance or peaceful resistance,” said Mahmoud Khames, 34, an unemployed West Bank resident, in advance of the vote. “It’s not a soccer match that someone has to win. Resistance is a matter of freeing one’s self and his people from the Israeli occupation.”

In downtown Ramallah, the crowd watching on an outdoor TV screen on Thursday night was large and festive despite the late November chill. Celebratory gunfire — fired by exultant uniformed police and soldiers — rent the night as the vote came in just before midnight local time. “I expect many things from this but the most important is the reconciliation of the two factions, Hamas and Fatah,” said Mohammad Abdel Moute, 40, a government employee who lives in a local refugee camp. “And now hopefully we’ll be able to address the world with our problems, and hopefully the world will be able to help us in obtaining our rights, to be able to live like normal human beings.” Nearby, Layla Jammal, 70, praised the strategy of putting the question of statehood to the General Assembly instead of to the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. routinely vetoes measures opposed by Israel.

“We heard threats from Netanyahu this evening before the voting, saying that a Palestinian state at the U.N. is unilateral, one-sided,” Jammal said. “And we laugh, because the wall that they built is one-sided! They didn’t ask us. From here it makes us a state against another state.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Rama

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