The United Nations General Assembly has voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state, despite strong opposition from Israel and its Western allies, the United States and Canada.

The historic vote came after impassioned speeches from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who asked the UN to “issue the birth certificate of Palestine,” and Ron Prosor, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, who said a vote in favour of Palestinian statehood would be detrimental to peace in the region.

UN member nations voted 138-9 in favour of recognizing Palestine. Forty-one countries abstained from voting.

Canada and the United States stood with Israel in vehemently opposing raising Palestine’s status at the UN. Also voting “no” were the Czech Republic, Panama and the Pacific island nations of Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the assembly that Canada “has long opposed unilateral action by both sides,” and said outstanding issues between Palestine and Israel are “too complicated” to be resolved with a vote in the UN.

Baird said Canada supports a “negotiated settlement” between the two sides and suggested that Ottawa will take retaliatory measures against the Palestinians for forcing the UN vote.

Baird didn’t elaborate, but observers say one option for Canada is to suspend aid to Palestinians.

As the vote result flashed on an electronic board in the UN General Assembly in New York, the majority of delegates stood up, cheering and clapping. An elated Abbas shook hands and hugged his supporters as a large Palestinian flag was unfurled behind him.

Meanwhile, Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza to celebrate, honking their car horns, waving flags and setting off fireworks.

Although Thursday’s vote is largely symbolic, the Palestinians view the status change as a crucial step toward recognition on the world stage.  The Palestinians can now also gain access to UN agencies and international bodies, including the International Criminal Court. That has caused concern for Israel because the Palestinians could bring forward war crime accusations or raise the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Prosor told the UN that formal recognition of Palestine is a setback for both Israelis and Palestinians.

“The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties and not through UN resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests,” he said before the vote. “And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.”

After the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called on Israeli and Palestinian authorities to resume negotiations “without preconditions” and “further provocative actions.”

She said “grand pronouncements” will soon fade and Palestinians will wake up to the same world they’ve known for decades unless serious peace negotiations take place.

"Progress towards a just and lasting two-state solution cannot be made by pressing a green voting button here in this hall," Rice said in a speech to the assembly. "Nor does passing any resolution create a state, where none indeed exits, or change the reality on the ground. This resolution does not establish that Palestine is a state."

Abbas said the onus is on Israel to stop what he called an “aggression against our people in the Gaza Strip.”

He accused Israel of refusing to back down from its “policy of occupation, brute force and war, which in turn obliges the international community to shoulder its responsibilities toward the Palestinian people and toward peace.”

With files from The Canadian Press