By Judith Sudilovsky
JERUSALEM (CNS) – In the West Bank, church bells rang at the midnight announcement that the UN General Assembly had voted to grant Palestinians observer status.
Young and old Catholic Palestinians joined others in Ramallah where the announcement was celebrated into the wee hours of the morning.
“We were very happy when this announcement was made,” said Father Firas Aridah, whose Jifna village parish is five miles from Ramallah.
“We saw that our dignity may be hurt, but it will be healed. We are not abandoned. People are with us. We have rights just like everyone else, and we can live in calm and peace.”
At last, he told Catholic News Service on November 30, Palestinians were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Fr Aridah said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ UN victory, just weeks after clashes between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was very important for the Palestinian leader, demonstrating that he could unite his people without resorting to violence.
“Gaza was celebrating with us. Everyone can now look to President Abbas as the one who will unify Gaza and the West Bank, and they know that he did not use guns (to achieve the vote), he used diplomacy and peaceful demonstrations,” said Fr Aridah.
In a November 30 statement, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which includes churches in Israel and the Palestinian territories, described the UN vote as “an incentive for peace” that marked a “significant shift to meet the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians”.
The patriarchate congratulated Abbas, calling him a “moderate man and a man of peace”.
Bernard Sabella, a Catholic member of the Palestinian Parliament and retired professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, said the UN vote could herald “some more serious thinking on the part of Israel” regarding Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
“It is not enough for us Palestinians to celebrate and be happy about it, there are also the Israelis (to consider),” he said.
Though the vote left him feeling “a little optimistic”, he said it remained to be seen what would happen following the Israeli elections in January.
Observers predict the election of a right-wing government. Sabella said although the strong vote served to boost Abbas’ standing among Palestinians – who had lost some respect for him because of stagnation in the negotiations with Israel – its overall ramifications remained uncertain.
“We have to wait and see if President Abbas will go to Gaza when he returns from New York and really put the reunification effort into effect. That is the real hope and expectation,” he said.
Abbas leads Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Rival Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 following its Palestinian legislative election victory in 2006.
Hamas initially formed a national unity government with Fatah.
Following a week of internal fighting in which it is estimated that at least 118 people were killed and more than 550 were wounded, Hamas took control of Gaza, expelling Fatah officials. The rift has plagued the Palestinians ever since.
Sabella praised Abbas for mentioning Gaza specifically in his speech at the UN, in effect sending a message to Gazans and others that he was there as their representative to also speak about their pain.
The UN vote was also significant in that it indicates an international interest in supporting a “pragmatic Palestinian leadership”, Sabella said.
“The international community is saying something that everyone is seeing, which is (the need for) a two-state solution, and Israel is refusing to see that.”
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Franciscan Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, said that “even the Israelis, the majority of them, at least according to the polls that I’ve read in the newspapers, took this step for granted, and they don’t see it so negatively, like the Israeli government is.”
“Everybody is aware that the solution of two peoples and two states, as complicated as it is, is the right path that needs to be taken. And the sooner begun the better it will be,” he said.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal told Vatican Radio the UN vote was “a step forward.”
“I am sure that the day that we have a Palestinian state, made by Palestinians, governed by Palestinians, by Mahmoud Abbas, to start with, will benefit Israel, because Israel will have another nation with which to dialogue and come to agreements with for the wellbeing of the whole area,” he said.
“We mustn’t be afraid,” he added.
“We have to overcome this mutual mistrust and say: We can live in peace, two states, side by side, like the Holy Father has called for more than once.” – CNS