Flags and portraits of the late Yasser Arafat and President Mahmoud Abbas draped buildings in a central Ramallah square where Palestinians awaited the live broadcast of a speech by Abbas.
“This is something we should have done a long time ago,” said Khaled Shtayyeh, 42, carrying a Palestinian flag.
“It was always stopped by international pressure. I am very proud. I hope there is no postponement.”
There was no sign of organised Palestinian violence in the West Bank as feared by some Israelis, worried Israel’s opposition to the biggest Palestinian diplomatic initiative in years could trigger clashes with occupation security forces.
But in a sign of mounting tension, one Palestinian man died after being shot by Israeli troops who intervened in a clash between villagers and Jewish settlers south of the West Bank city of Nablus.
Israel raised its security alert level ahead of the UN speech, scheduled for the early evening, local time. A military spokesman said armed forces “are trying to prepare for all kinds of eventualities”. A police spokesman confirmed police strength had been boosted significantly.
President Barack Obama has warned the United States would exercise its UN veto power to prevent a Palestinian state being declared by the 15-member Security Council.
Backing Israel’s insistence the two sides must resume suspended negotiations, Obama this week said there can be “no shortcut” to a Middle East peace that attempts to circumvent a treaty between the Palestinians and Israel.
Palestinians say they have been patient during 20 years of peace talks that have yielded nothing, while Israel’s occupation continues and Jewish settlements grow on West Bank land.
“It’s the first time for a long time, maybe since 1988, that the Palestinian leadership has taken matters into its hands. The occupation will continue and it might get worse but the initiative is in our hands,” said Shtayyeh.
The mood among top Palestinians in the Gaza Strip contrasted starkly with the West Bank’s celebration plans.
Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Islamist Hamas movement which rules the enclave and refuses to recognise Israel, said Palestinians should not beg for a state. Liberation of Palestinian land should come first, he said.
Without a guaranteed “right of return” to land lost in the 1948 war which led to the creation of the Jewish state, “what is happening at the United Nations harms the dignity of our Palestinian people,” Haniyeh said.
Abbas’s UN initiative has thrust the long-running Middle East conflict back into the world spotlight after months of international apathy. But its outcome and its potential effects are far from clear.
“At the moment, it’s a state on paper. We are still occupied,” said Raymond Bosheh, 50, as he watched preparations outside his restaurant in the recently renamed Yasser Arafat Square.
“I am with the move, but the consequences scare me,” he said, noting Palestinian dependence on American aid and Israeli-controlled access to trade.
“The economy could play a big role. Many people have nothing. We are living on aid. The economy is not based on anything solid. Everybody takes pride in the idea of having a state but how can you live in it when you have to pass through three checkpoints to get to Bethlehem?”
There were reports of brief clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at known flashpoints in the West Bank, where tension has grown between villagers and Jewish settlers.
In the village of Qusra, south east of Nablus, Palestinians fought with settlers who they said were vandalising olive trees.
The settlers say Abbas’s UN declarations will make no difference to their determination to remain in the West Bank.
“We don’t care what they’re up to at the UN, we have the bible which says the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people,” said activist Meir Bartler, 25, on Thursday.
Avraham Binyamin, spokesman for Yitzhar settlement near Nablus said: “The real battlefield is not at the UN, it’s here on the ground and one hopes the government and security forces will understand, just as the Arabs and settlers have, that any talk of compromise is destined to fail.”
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