Thousands of flag-waving Palestinians rallied Wednesday in towns across the West Bank to show support for their president's bid to win U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.
The gatherings were carefully orchestrated, with civil servants and schoolchildren given time off to participate. Despite the largely low-key mood, a new poll indicated an overwhelming majority supports President Mahmoud Abbas' quest for U.N. recognition of a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
Some said they were dismayed by the U.S. pledge to block the Palestinians, if necessary by a veto in the U.N. Security Council. In Ramallah, the crowd cheered when a masked youth on a stage burned a U.S. flag before being led away by Palestinian security forces.
"We want to live in dignity," said Atallah Wahbeh, a 60-year-old shopkeeper in Ramallah. He said it was important that the U.N. recognize a Palestinian state, even if there are repercussions, such as a possible cut in American aid.
"We don't need the Americans to buy us with money," he said.
The rallies were held far from possible friction points with Israeli troops, though in two locations small groups of boys broke away and threw stones at Israeli troops who responded with tear gas.
In the city of Hebron, where several hundred Jewish settlers live in a heavily fortified downtown enclave, dozens of Palestinian riot police eventually dispersed the stone throwers.
Abbas has called for peaceful marches in support of statehood, and Israeli security officials have scaled back forecasts of widespread violence.
Near Karnei Shomron, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, an assailant fired on an Israeli car, causing damage but no injuries, the Israeli military said.
Abbas is to address the U.N. General Assembly later this week and request full U.N. membership. With peace talks deadlocked for the past three years, the Palestinians believe a strong international endorsement will improve their position in future negotiations.
Israel and the U.S. say a Palestinian state can be established only through negotiations.
Abbas has said negotiations remain his preference, but he will only resume talks if Israel agrees to the pre-1967 lines serving as a starting point and if it halts all settlement construction. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says talks should begin without preconditions.
"We went to the U.N. because we are tired of negotiations for the sake of negotiations," Abbas aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim told the rally in Ramallah.
The new poll found that 83 per cent of Palestinians believe Abbas' recognition quest is a good idea, even though nearly as many — 78 per cent — expect it will make their daily lives more difficult. The survey, conducted last week by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, included 1,200 respondents and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
The U.N. bid is seen by many Palestinians as a last option after two uprisings and two decades of on-and-off negotiations with Israel failed to produce a state, said pollster Khalil Shikaki.
Two-thirds of Palestinians favour peaceful protests, while one-third says the Palestinians should resume armed struggle, according to Shikaki's poll.
Still, some worried about possible repercussions from the U.S. or Israel. Members of Congress have threatened to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
Palestinians fear Israeli troops could tighten West Bank checkpoints or that Israel could suspend the transfer of tax funds it collects on behalf of the Palestinians.
"Now the Israelis will have more reasons to send us back from checkpoints, to tell us 'go back to your state'," said Mahmoud Khalil, a 30-year-old from Ramallah.
Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Nasser Shiyoukhi in Hebron contributed to this report.