Palestinian veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat died Tuesday of coronavirus complications at age 65, in a death mourned as a “great loss” for his people and sparking tributes from around the world.
Erekat was a long-time architect of plans to end the conflict with Israel through the creation of an independent Palestinian state, a goal he would not live to see achieved.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the passing of “a brother and friend… a great loss for Palestine and our people” and declared three days of mourning for Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s secretary general.
Erekat, a lung transplant recipient who suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, contracted coronavirus and was admitted last month to the intensive care unit of Israel’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in west Jerusalem.
Given his prior respiratory conditions, his prognosis for recovery had been dim.
“Unfortunately, his condition didn’t improve and remained critical, and he passed away amidst multiple system failure,” the hospital said.
His body was later transported to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, where a memorial will be held at Abbas’s presidential compound on Wednesday.
Erekat was born in Jerusalem in 1955, but later lived in Jericho. He will be buried there following Wednesday’s memorial.
Erekat grew up in the shadow of Israel’s crushing victory over its Arab neighbors in the Six-Day War of 1967, and dedicated much of his life to seeking a resolution to the conflict.
But he was forced to watch as the prospects for the two-state solution he longed for grew increasingly remote, undermined by Israeli settlement expansion, sporadic violence and Palestinian divisions.
To the dismay of Palestinians, Washington under U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
When Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize ties in recent months, Erekat charged this would kill the two-state solution, strengthen “extremists” and undermine the “possibility of peace.”
– ‘Peace is my destiny’ –
Condolences poured in from Israel, abroad and Gaza, led by the Islamist group Hamas which is a rival of Erekat’s Fatah movement.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh offered “condolences” to his “brothers” in Fatah.
Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who represented Israel in peace talks with the Palestinians and established a personal relationship with Erekat, said the Palestinian negotiator had “dedicated his life to his people.”
“Reaching Peace is my destiny, (Erekat) used to say,” Livni wrote on Twitter.
The U.S. State Department in a tweet offered “condolences” and said “our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov praised Erekat as someone who “never gave up on negotiations.”
Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, praised Erekat as “a steadfast fighter… who spent his life diligently pursuing the rights of the Palestinian people.”
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, who heads the mainly Arab Joint List coalition, said: “Saeb won’t get to see his people freed from the occupation. But generations of Palestinians will remember him as one of the giants who dedicated his life for their independence.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described Erekat’s death as a setback for the Middle East peace process, and praised his effort “to fulfil the legitimate aspirations of his people.”
– ‘Duty to negotiate’ –
Erekat took part in the failed Camp David summit in July 2000, and the September 2010 talks in Washington, which stopped in a row over Israel’s settlement building.
He was also chief negotiator in 2014 when then US president Barack Obama tried to restart peace efforts.
Israeli anti-occupation civil society organization Peace Now said “as long as people like Erekat reach out their hand to peace, it’s our duty to negotiate.”
A former journalist with the independent daily Al-Quds in east Jerusalem, Erekat held a BA and an MA in political science from the University of San Francisco.
He also held a doctorate in peace studies from the University of Bradford in England, and taught at An-Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus from 1979 to 1991.
Erekat is survived by his wife and four children.