Palestinians officially launch statehood campaign

Associated Press
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pauses during a meeting with Palestinian doctors at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011. A delegation of 40 Palestinian medics met with Abbas on Tuesday before leaving on an aid mission to Libya. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinians on Thursday officially launched their campaign to join the United Nations as a full member state, saying they would stage a series of peaceful events in the run-up to the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly later this month.

Some 100 Palestinian officials and activists gathered at the U.N. offices in Ramallah for a short ceremony, where they announced their plans in a letter addressed to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The letter urges Ban to add his "moral voice in support of the Palestinian people."

"Families of the tens of thousands of victims of Israeli occupation, including those martyred, wounded and imprisoned, and countless others who were expelled from their homes or lost their homes and their property, hope that you will exert all possible efforts toward the achievement of the Palestinian people's just demands," it says.

The letter was handed over by Latifa Abu Hmeid, a 70-year-old woman who lost one son in fighting with Israel and has seven other sons in Israeli prisons because of alleged militant activities.

Officials said Abu Hmeid was selected to deliver the document because her personal story reflects the plight of the Palestinians. A resident of a West Bank refugee camp, her house has been twice demolished by Israeli authorities as punishment for her sons' activities, they said.

The Palestinians have decided to turn to the U.N. to recognize their independence after two decades of unsuccessful peace efforts with Israel. The latest round of talks broke down a year ago.

The campaign seeks recognition of an independent Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel rejects a return to its 1967 lines.

While any U.N. vote will be largely symbolic, the Palestinians believe a strong international endorsement will boost their position and put pressure on Israel should negotiations resume. Israel has been lobbying the international community to oppose the vote, saying peace can only be achieved through negotiations.

The letter says the campaign will include a series of peaceful events "in various international cities and capitals" leading up to the Sept. 21 opening of the General Assembly. Two days later, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will address the gathering in New York and ask for admission to the United Nations.

It remains unclear whether the Palestinians will turn to the Security Council or the General Assembly.

The Council needs nine votes out of 15 and no veto from any of its permanent members to pass a decision. However, the United States, which opposes the Palestinian bid, is expected to veto any request in the Council.

The Palestinians could then seek admission as a "nonmember state" of the General Assembly, like the Vatican.

Approval in the Assembly, which is dominated by developing nations sympathetic to the Palestinians, is assured. But the vote would not be legally binding. The Palestinians say they will continue their campaign until they gain full U.N. membership.

Although the Palestinians say their campaign will be peaceful, Israeli military officials fear that mass demonstrations in the West Bank could turn violent.

Security forces have been preparing for the possibility of violence, conducting exercises and stockpiling what they say is "non-lethal" riot-control equipment like tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades.

Israeli West Bank settlers, meanwhile, came under suspicion Thursday in the latest of a string of attacks against Palestinians and the Israeli military in the West Bank.

Two cars were torched and Hebrew-language slogans were spray-painted on a mosque in the Nablus area, and three dozen trees were uprooted from Palestinian farmland in the same area, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. The Israeli military said it was investigating.

No one claimed responsibility for the acts, but settlers have carried out similar acts before, in some cases in retaliation for Israeli government actions against settlers, a practice they call "price tag." Earlier this week, a West Bank mosque was set afire.

Settlers are also suspected of having infiltrated an Israeli military base early Wednesday, smashing windows, slashing the tires of about a dozen vehicles and spray-painting graffiti alluding to the demolition of three homes in an unauthorized settler outpost earlier this week.

Separately, the military demolished five West Bank shacks and three water cisterns it said Palestinians built without authorization in the West Bank. U.N. officials said 20 people were left homeless.

The demolitions occurred days after military officials had promised to halt the practice, saying the policy was not equally enforced in Jewish settlements. Military officials did not return messages.

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