Flag-waving Palestinians filled the squares of major West Bank cities on Wednesday to rally behind President Mahmoud Abbas's bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations despite US and Israeli objections.
"We are asking for the most simple of rights, a state like other nations," said Sabrina Hussein, 50, carrying the green, red, black and white Palestinian national flag at the main demonstration in Ramallah.
Abbas's Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank under 1990s interim peace deals, gave school children and civil servants the day off to attend events in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron.
A large mockup of a blue chair, symbolising a seat at the UN, and giant Palestinian flags hanging from buildings provided a backdrop for the Ramallah rally, where overflow crowds of thousands packed its Manara and Clock squares.
The main venues were far removed from Israeli military checkpoints on the perimeter of the cities and there were no reports of any violence. Palestinian leaders have pledged that demonstrations for statehood would be peaceful.
Later in the day in New York, US President Barack Obama was due to meet Abbas to urge him to drop plans to ask the UN Security Council to recognise a Palestinian state. Washington says statehood should be achieved through peace talks.
Abbas has said he will present UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with a membership application on Friday. The move requires Security Council approval and the United States, one of five veto-wielding permanent members, says it will block it.
At the Ramallah rally, Amina Abdel Jabbar al-Kiswany, a head teacher, said the UN bid was a step on the road to statehood, not a solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which direct negotiations have failed to resolve.
"It's a cry of desperation," Kiswany said.
In the thick of the crowd, a masked men tried to set a US flag on fire but was dissuaded by another participant who tried to grab it away from him. In the end, the Stars and Stripes was tossed into the crowd, where a man picked it up and walked away with it.
US-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month limited moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in areas Palestinians want for a state.
Netanyahu has called the Palestinian demand of a halt to settlement building an unacceptable precondition and urged Abbas to return to negotiations.
The Israeli leader was due to meet Obama, with whom he has had a strained relationship, later in the day on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Palestinians hope to establish a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The Palestinian Authority has held sway only in the West Bank since Hamas Islamists opposed to his peace efforts with Israel seized Gaza in a brief civil war in 2007.
Hamas has dismissed the UN bid as a waste of time and there were no rallies in the Mediterranean enclave, where Palestinians argue that Abbas should be devoting his energies to bridging the internal political divide.
Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls Judea and Samaria, and to Jerusalem. It claims all of the city as its capital, a status that is not recognised internationally.Palestinians rally for Abbas's UN statehood bid