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December 12, 2011

Palestinian Flag Raised over UNESCO HQ

by Lisa Bryant

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said he would continue to push for full United Nations membership after savoring one symbolic victory for his statehood bid, watching his flag fly over the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In a moment fraught with symbolism, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood under a pelting rain watching as his red, black, green and white flag slowly rose for the first time over the headquarters of a United Nations agency.

Abbas was greeted by thunderous applause by foreign dignitaries and journalists, gathered at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to celebrate the agency's latest member. In a push for Mr. Abbas' larger statehood bid, UNESCO's general assembly voted in October to admit Palestine as its 195th member, over strong objections by Israel and the United States.

Israel temporarily froze the transfer of funds to the Palestinian territories. Washington has suspended its funding to the UN agency, arguing only a peace treaty can establish an internationally recognized Palestinian state.

But UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said she hoped the Palestinian membership would pave the way for peace in the Middle East.

"This new membership must be a chance for all to join together around shared values and renewed ambitions for peace. In this spirit, Ladies and Gentlemen, I welcome Palestine to UNESCO," said Bokova.

Abbas offered similarly upbeat remarks.  Abbas described the day as an important marker in Palestinian history, one he hoped would usher in chances for greater freedom, justice and peace.

At a news conference later, the Palestinian leader said negotiations were continuing for full United Nations membership and to join more than a dozen other international organizations, but offered no time tables. Abbas applied for full UN recognition in September.

Washington contributes nearly a quarter of UNESCO's annual budget, and its funding freeze has left the agency strapped for cash. Among other areas, UNESCO oversees world cultural heritage sites and educational and scientific exchanges.

Abbas also held talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is pushing for an upgrade of Palestine's UN status to just short of full statehood.