RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Euphoric Palestinians erupted in cheers, honked car horns and chanted "God is great" after the United Nations endorsed an independent state of Palestine, giving sweeping international backing to their demands for sovereignty over lands Israel occupied in 1967.
The historic General Assembly decision late Thursday to accept "Palestine" as a non-member observer state won't actually grant independence to the 4.3 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Israel remains an occupying force in the first two territories and continues to severely restrict access to Gaza, ruled by the Hamas militant group. Nor does the vote plaster over the rift in the Palestinian leadership that has led to the emergence of dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza.
But by gaining approval at a world forum overwhelmingly sympathetic to their quest, Palestinians hope to make it harder for Israel to resist global pressure to negotiate the borders of a future Palestine based on lines Israel held before capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967.
The massive international recognition of the Palestinians' right to a state — only nine of 193 General Assembly members voted against it — gave them hope that the tide had turned in their favor.
"It's a great feeling to have a state, even if in name only," said civil servant Mohammed Srour, 28, standing in a flag-waving a crowd of more than 2,000 packed into a square in the West Bank city of Ramallah late Thursday. "The most beautiful dream of any man is to have an independent state, particularly for us Palestinians who have lived under occupation for a long time."
But even though the resolution did not immediately change their lives, Palestinians say the recognition isn't just symbolic. They believe it will strengthen their hand in any future talks with Israel, which has attacked the Palestinian move as an attempt to bypass such negotiations.
The international community's warm embrace was meant, in part, to shore up the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose domestic standing had been hurt by his failure to deliver a state through negotiations during his eight years at the helm. European powers that Israel had hoped would oppose the statehood bid either supported it or abstained.
Hamas, once shunned internationally for its campaign of violence against Israel, has seen its isolation ease in recent months, as Islamists gain power across the region. An outpouring of support from the Arab world during an Israeli offensive against targets linked to militants earlier this month in Gaza gave them another bump.
After initially criticizing the U.N. bid as an empty gesture, Hamas has come around to supporting the popular move, with reservations.
Palestinians in the coastal strip also celebrated the vote, though on a smaller scale than after the massive eruption of joy in the streets after last week's cease-fire deal with Israel.
Some set off fireworks, others shot in the air and children in the streets cheered and flashed victory signs. "Today is a big joy for all of us," Abu Yazan, a 29-year-old Abbas supporter, said.
Izzat Rishaq, a senior Hamas figure in exile, said he welcomed the U.N. vote as an achievement, but that Hamas counts on "heroic resistance" to create a Palestinian state — underlining the group's deep ideological rift with Abbas who opposes violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the U.N. vote as meaningless and accused Abbas of delivering a "defamatory and venomous" U.N. speech "full of mendacious propaganda" against Israel. Netanyahu argued that the U.N. move violated past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and that Israel would act accordingly, without elaborating what steps it might take.
The Palestinians turned to the U.N. after two decades of on-again, off-again talks undermined by violence and a failure of will. They reject Israel's claim that the recognition bid is an attempt to dictate the future borders of Palestine.
Instead, they say, it's a last-ditch attempt to rescue peace efforts threatened by Israeli settlement building on occupied land. Since 1967, half a million Israelis have settled on lands the U.N. says are part of Palestine.
Abbas aides say that with its vote, the U.N. is rebuffing Israeli attempts to portray these territories as "disputed," or up for grabs, rather than occupied.
Abbas aide Nabil Shaath said it will no longer be up to Israel to decide whether the Palestinians can have a state.
"The notion that Israel should approve the Palestinians' inalienable right to self-determination is simply illogical, immoral, and totally unacceptable," he wrote in an opinion piece in the Israeli daily Haaretz.
The endorsement of the pre-1967 line as the border of Palestine also poses a direct challenge to Netanyahu, who has refused to accept that demarcation as a basis for border talks with the Palestinians. Abbas and his aides have said the Israeli leader's rejection of such a framework for negotiations, accepted by his predecessors, helped push them to go to the U.N.
The Palestinians could also gain access to U.N. agencies and international bodies, most significantly the International Criminal Court, which could become a springboard for going after Israel for alleged war crimes or its ongoing settlement building on war-won land.
However, Abbas has signaled that he wants recognition to give him leverage in future talks with Israel, not as a tool for confronting or delegitimizing Israel, as Israeli leaders have alleged. He told the U.N. on Thursday that the Palestinians will "behave in a responsible and positive ways in our next steps."
Palestinian technical teams have studied the laws of all U.N. agencies and put together recommendations for Abbas, said a Palestinian official involved in the effort.
He said Abbas told the experts there is no rush, and the next Palestinian moves would in part depend on international reaction, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose internal deliberations.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said Friday that the Palestinians will now sit down to sort out their priorities. She said reconciliation between Abbas and Hamas is the most urgent requirement, but suggested it's unlikely Abbas, even though strengthened by U.N. recognition, would resume negotiations with Israel without a settlement freeze.
"We don't want flawed and counterproductive negotiations," she said.
Most immediately, the Palestinian Authority, which relies heavily on foreign aid and is struggling with the worst cash crisis in its 18-year history, could face further funding cuts over the U.N. bid.
In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators warned the Palestinians they could lose U.S. financial support of millions of dollars a year and risk the shutdown of their Washington office if they use their enhanced U.N. status against Israel
Israel could also suspend the monthly transfer of millions of dollars in tax rebates it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, a punitive step it has taken in the past.
Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed reporting.