RAMALLAH // The "Palestinian Spring is here", Mahmoud Abbas told thousands gathered in this West Bank city yesterday to welcome their president home after he formally presented the United Nations with a request to recognise Palestine as a state.
"A popular spring, a populist spring, a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal," Mr Abbas said in an address at his Ramallah headquarters.
He insisted that until Israel stops building Jewish settlements, a return to US-sponsored peace negotiations with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was out of the question.
"We have confirmed to all that we want to achieve our rights through peaceful means, through negotiations - but not just any negotiations," he said.
Many Palestinians credited Mr Abbas's address to the world body on Friday with drawing a figurative line in the sand by refusing to bend to pressure from Israel and the administration of the US president, Barack Obama.
The Palestinian president vowed to request full membership from the UN Security Council, even though Mr Obama has warned that the US will do all it can to block such a move, and will use its veto if the proposal goes to a vote.
Mr Abbas also had tough words for Mr Netanyahu. In an interview with the Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat on Saturday, he called the right-wing Israeli leader intransigent. He ranked Mr Netanyahu last in terms of tough-headed Israeli officials with whom he had worked, with Mr Abbas saying with other leaders, such as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni, "negotiations were possible".
If anything, those uncharacteristically barbed words have bolstered the standing of Mr Abbas, who in the past has been criticised for acquiescing to American and Israeli demands.
Streams of supporters poured into the area around Mr Abbas's headquarters in the early afternoon yesterday waving Palestinian flags and chanting nationalist slogans. Government employees and thousands of school children were let out early to take part in the festivities held in light rain, while groups of young men carrying placards of the president marched through the crowds.
Mr Abbas at times sought to play down expectations, cautioning the crowd to be "realistic" and warning that the "international journey has begun and a long journey lies ahead". But many still expressed enthusiasm. They were under no illusions that an elevated recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN would not end Israel's occupation.
"I don't think anything will happen because of this," said Jihad Hawwas, 33, an employee of a local government ministry. "We support our president because we want to be steadfast, and he showed in his speech that he, too, wants to be steadfast."
Groups of fellow supporters of the president flanked Mr Hawwas as he spoke, nodding in approval of the Palestinian leader's defiance of US pressure.
"We have always wanted to see a strong president, and when he spoke at the UN, we heard in Abu Mazen the words of a strong president."
Mr Abbas appeared two hours after he was initially expected to speak, and fatigued supporters began to wane in enthusiasm. A steadily growing number began leaving soon after he started speaking.
But Abdullah Zaroor, a 63-year-old parking attendant, was brimming with enthusiasm, shouting at the top of his lungs: "We are all one voice - the voice of Mahmoud Abbas!"
* With additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press