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Palestinians cast first vote at UN General Assembly, angering Israel, US

Palestinians have cast their first vote at the UN General Assembly. Israel and the US lobbied against UN recognition of Palestine, arguing that a separate state can only be achieved through direct bilateral negotiations.

A routine UN General Assembly vote held special significance for Palestinians on Monday as the delegation cast a ballot for the first time, an act the envoy said brought his nation a step closer to full membership of the body. Most of the 193 members of the General Assembly applauded Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour as he voted for a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

"This is an important step in our march for freedom and independence and full membership of the United Nations," Mansour told the assembly. "I think that this is a very, very special moment in the history of the struggle of the Palestinian people at the United Nations," he said.

Previously an "entity," Palestine became an observer state member of the United Nations on November 29 last year. It cannot vote on resolutions, but, under UN rules, it and other observers such as the Vatican can vote in elections for judges on international courts.

'Hungry and waiting'

The upgraded status came last year, after an attempt to secure full UN membership failed because of resistance in the Security Council, where the United States made clear it would use its veto power to block the bid. However, no country has veto power in the General Assembly, so Palestine had no trouble securing status as a non-member state there. The status upgrade allows the delegation to participate in some assembly votes and join international organizations.

Mansour called the vote "symbolic," but said it was "an important one because it reflects that the international community, particularly the General Assembly, is hungry and waiting for the state of Palestine to become a full member of the United Nations." He added that "I was privileged to have that special moment, of putting, on behalf of our entire nation, that ballot in the box."

Palestinians have used their UN status to join the cultural agency UNESCO and have voted there. Israel and the United States subsequently withdrew funding to the body because it allowed Palestinian membership and last week both countries lost their UNESCO voting rights.

They have also sought to sign the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

US and Israel

Israeli Deputy UN Ambassador David Roet complained to the meeting that Mansour should have celebrated the vote outside the assembly and had tried to "hijack" attention at the meeting.

"Israel maintains its position that the Palestinian Authority is not a state and the Palestinian Authority fails to meet the criteria for statehood," said Roet, who insisted that the vote did not change the statehood bid.

The United States has sought to revive direct Mideast peace talks, with both sides returning to the negotiating table in July after a three-year freeze. Since talks restarted, Israel has announced plans to build thousands of new settler homes in the occupied West Bank: territory the Palestinians want for their future state.

Asked whether the United States or Israel had objected to Monday's vote in the UN assembly, Mansour answered: "They can't. This is a very crystal clear case."

mkg/ccp (Reuters, AFP)