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In Ramallah, West Bank Palestinians divided between celebratory and cynical

Palestinians in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, faced off against Israeli soldiers during their weekly protest on the same day that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas submitted a bid for Palestinian statehood to the United Nations, Sept. 23, 2011. (Isasm Rimawi/Flash 90/JTA)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (JTA) — A larger-than-life sky-blue chair with the word “Palestine” dominates the center of Manara Square in downtown Ramallah.

The Palestinian flag, a national symbol once banned by Israel, flies everywhere. Long banners of flags crisscross the square, huge flags decorate the sides of buildings, and even police cars sport flags. Nationalist music blares from loudspeakers.

The chair, symbolizing Palestinians’ hoped-for acceptance as a state by the United Nations, is empty for now. Public opinion in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian financial and political capital, is divided over whether the Palestinians’ U.N. bid for statehood will make any difference on the ground.

Some, like Walid Nasser, a manager of 17 radio stations in the West Bank, says that Palestinians are now on the road to an independent state.

“It’s a legal step and it’s very important for our own real state,” Nasser told JTA in Manara Square on Friday, the day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas submitted the Palestinians’ bid for statehood to the United Nations. “There has never been a U.N. document that registers Palestine as a state. It’s a huge step forward for the Palestinian people.”

Nasser did not seem bothered by the promised American veto of a Security Council resolution calling for the recognition of Palestine.

“We don’t care — let the U.S. be the only one of 130 nations opposing a Palestinian state,” he said. “We deserve a state just like Israel deserves a state. They suffered a lot in the past, but so did we. We want a state that will live in peace with all of its neighbors, including Israel.”

Others say that a Palestinian state would be a chance to right historic wrongs. Qais Adel, 44, a soft-spoken waiter at a downtown Ramallah restaurant, stood outside a grocery store with his wife.

“I was born in Nablus in 1967, and all of my life has been under Israeli occupation,” he said, putting his grocery bags on the ground to rest for a moment. “For years now, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad has been laying the groundwork for a state, and now we are ready. Israel already has a state. Now we want a state within the 1967 borders.”

The 1967 borders would mean an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem; Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Those are the same borders that President Obama cited earlier this year as the basis for negotiations, with mutually agreed swaps of territory. But in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, there was neither mention of the 1967 lines nor a call to Israel to freeze settlement expansion.

In New York, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said a future Palestinian state cannot have Jewish settlers in it. Some 300,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, not including eastern Jerusalem. Even assuming mutually agreed-upon land swaps that would keep settlement blocs under Israeli control, West Bank settlements that are home to tens of thousands of Israelis would be left in areas allotted to a Palestinian state under almost any conceivable peace deal.

In Ramallah, many Palestinians are doubtful that the U.N. gambit will change anything in their daily lives.

Yahya Eid, 23, sat on a plastic chair next to a small stand selling tea and coffee. He said he works 18 hours a day, either at the stand or at a small restaurant he owns. He graduated from university last year with a degree in computer science but couldn’t find work in his field.

He smiled cynically as he surveyed the decorated square, which was mostly quiet on Friday, while some flashpoints, like the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, saw clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters. One Palestinian was killed in a clash between Israeli settlers and Palestinians near the Palestinian village of Qusra.

“If Israel and the U.S. don’t want us to have a state, it’s not going to happen,” Eid said. “And what about President Obama’s speech to the U.N.? All he said was, ‘Get back to negotiating.’”

Asked whether the armed Palestinian police in the streets of Ramallah and the flags don’t already provide a feeling of statehood, Eid said, “Sure, it feels like a state during the day. But at 10 p.m. our police have to get off the streets and Israeli soldiers can come in if they want to arrest anyone. What kind of state is that?”

Despite his perspective, Eid said he believes there eventually will be an independent Palestinian state – he’s just not sure how long it will take.

For a Palestinian named Nick, 60, the celebrations in Ramallah on Friday marking Abbas’s statehood petition were a chance to connect with the homeland he had left many years ago.

Nick, who wouldn’t give his last name, said he has lived in Rocky Point, N.C., for 43 years. But he felt he needed to be in Ramallah on Friday.

“Abbas will get support for a Palestinian state in the General Assembly,” he said. “It will remind the world that we still live under occupation.”

Nick’s family left the West Bank in 1968 because there were few economic opportunities, he said, yet despite 40 years abroad, the West Bank still feels like home. He owns a home here and returns frequently to visit. He hopes his children, now young adults, will move back to the West Bank.

Nick says he’s not sure if the United Nations petition will lead to an independent state.

“It’s hard to tell, but we had to do something,” he said. “We negotiated for 20 years and achieved nothing but more settlements. Maybe this will make a difference.”