A resolution was adopted on Thursday evening with 119 in favour, eight voting against – including Israel and the United States – and 45 abstentions.
The text allows the flags of Palestine and the Holy See – both of which have non-member observer status – to be hoisted alongside those of the member states.
“It is a symbolic thing, but another step to solidify the pillars of the state of Palestine in the international arena,” said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian representative to the UN, ahead of the vote.
European nations were divided on the move with France and Sweden voting in favour while others such as Germany, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands and Cyprus abstained.
The UN has 20 days to implement the move, in time for a visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on September 30.
“Things are bleak, gloomy, the political process is dead, Gaza is being suffocated. This flag resolution is like the small light of a candle to keep hope alive for the Palestinian people.”
Our quest is not for another failing Arab state with a meaningless flag and useless institutions but for a homeland that was stripped from us.
Azam Tamimi, Palestinian academic and author
Both Israel and the United States have expressed strong opposition, with Israel’s UN ambassador Ron Prosor slamming the move as “a blatant attempt to hijack the UN”.
Prosor this week accused the Palestinians of trying to “score easy and meaningless points at the UN”.
He had asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and General Assembly President Ron Kutesa to block the move, which would break with the UN practice of flying only the flags of member states.
US state department spokesman Mark Toner called it a “counterproductive” attempt to pursue statehood claims outside of a negotiated settlement.
Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian British academic and author, told Al Jazeera that the gesture was “meaningless”.
“What the Palestinians need from the UN is an acknowledgement of its historic role in dispossessing the Palestinians,” Tamimi said.
“Our quest is not for another failing Arab state with a meaningless flag and useless institutions, but for a homeland that was stripped from us… We need the UN to atone for its sin by recognising the legitimacy of our struggle.”
The General Assembly upgraded the status of the Palestinians to that of non-member observer state in 2012.
The Vatican said it would abide by the decision of the General Assembly, but it also noted that the tradition at the UN was to fly the flags of full members.