WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2011— -- The Palestinian flag was flown for the first time outside PLO diplomatic offices in Washington today, in a symbolic step that officials said shows momentum towards creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Ambassador Maen Areikat unfurled the red, green, white and black banner from a balcony above the office entrance to a round of applause from supporters. He hailed the moment as historic.
"It's about time that this flag that symbolizes the struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination and statehood to be raised in the U.S.," Areikat said.
"We hope that this will help international efforts to provide recognition of the Palestinian state and we hope that, as President Obama said at the U.N. General Assembly last year, by the next General Assembly session this year in September, Palestine will be a full member of the U.N."
Palestinian leaders have been intensely lobbying members of the U.N. for official recognition this year despite U.S. opposition and the threat of a veto. The U.S. has said Palestinian statehood should come as part of a peace deal with Israel.
Still, Areikat praised the Obama administration for a small, if symbolic, gesture that reflects improved diplomatic relations and a U.S. commitment to help promote the goal of a Palestinian state.
"It means the administration is serious," he said of the U.S. permission to fly the flag. "What we are urging them now is to translate their support for a Palestinian state into concrete action."
The Palestinian diplomatic mission has been under a number of restrictions since the U.S. government stopped classifying the PLO as a terrorist group after the Oslo Accords of 1993. It does not have full diplomatic status as an independent state.
PLO Flag Flies in Washington
In July, the State Department granted permission to the Palestinians, at their request, to rename their U.S. mission the General Delegation of the PLO, the same title allowed for their missions in Europe, Canada and several countries in Latin America.
But U.S. officials said the move did not signify an upgrade in diplomatic status.
The PLO "operates under guidance provided by the State Department. It does not have any diplomatic privileges or immunities," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in July. "But these steps have symbolic value, they reflect improved relations between the United States and Palestinians, but they have no meaning under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations."
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August, 36 members of Congress protested the Department's decision to grant the Palestinians' requests and insisted instead that the PLO offices be closed.
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Tuesday's flag raising a Palestinian "scheme" to manipulate public and international opinion.
"The Palestinian leadership's ongoing drive to win recognition from foreign governments, and its latest push to condemn Israel at the UN, is part of the same strategy aimed at extracting concessions without being required to meet international commitments," she said in a statement.
"I remain deeply disappointed that the Palestinian leadership continues to reject the opportunity to negotiate directly and in good faith with the Israeli government to resolve all outstanding issues and achieve security and peace. Instead, Palestinian leaders reject negotiations, they make excuses, and they seek shortcuts to statehood."
ABC News' Eliza Larson contributed to this report.