With most U.N. members sympathetic to the Palestinians, there had been no doubt the resolution would be approved. A state of Palestine has already been recognized by 132 countries, and the Palestinians have 80 embassies and 40 representative offices around the world, according to the Palestinian Foreign Ministry.
Still, the Palestinians lobbied hard for Western support, winning over key European countries including France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland, as well as Japan and New Zealand. Germany and Britain were among the many Western nations that abstained.
Joining the United States and Israel in voting "no" were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.
In a departure from its previous opposition, Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, said it wouldn't interfere with the U.N. bid for statehood, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations Thursday.
With its newly enhanced status, the Palestinians can now gain access to U.N. agencies and international bodies, most significantly the International Criminal Court, which could become a springboard for going after Israel for alleged war crimes or its ongoing settlement building on war-won land.
However, in the run-up to the U.N. vote, Abbas signaled that he wants recognition to give him leverage in future talks with Israel, and not as a tool for confronting or delegitimizing Israel, as Israeli leaders have claimed.
Speaking stridently at times Thursday, Abbas accused the Israelis of "colonial occupation" that institutionalizes racism and charged that the Jewish state is continuing to perpetuate "war crimes."
Still, he said the Palestinians did not come to terminate "what remains of the negotiations process" but to try "to breathe new life into the negotiations" and achieve an independent state.
"We will act responsibly and positively in our next steps," he said.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after being stymied for full membership last year, when the United States announced it would veto their bid for full U.N. membership until there is a peace deal with Israel. Abbas made clear that this remains the Palestinians' ultimate goal - hopefully soon.
Full membership requires Security Council approval, with no vetoes. The non-member observer state status only required a majority vote of the General Assembly.
The vote granted the Palestinians the same status at the U.N. as the Vatican, and they will keep their seat next to the Holy See in the General Assembly chamber.
The historic vote came 65 years to the day after the U.N. General Assembly voted in 1947 to divide Palestine into two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs. Israel became a state but the Palestinians rejected the partition plan, and decades of tension and violence have followed.