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Coveney pays tribute to top Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat who has died aged 65

Erekat had been a prominent international spokesman for the Palestinians for three decades.

Saeb Erekat
Saeb Erekat
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

SAEB EREKAT, A veteran peace negotiator and prominent international spokesman for the Palestinians for more than three decades, has died aged 65 – weeks after being infected by the coronavirus.

The US-educated Erekat was involved in nearly every round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians going back to the landmark Madrid conference in 1991, when he famously showed up draped in a black-and-white chequered keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

Over the next few decades, Erekat was a constant presence in Western media, where he tirelessly advocated for a negotiated two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, defended the Palestinian leadership and blamed Israel for the failure to reach an agreement.

Erekat’s Fatah party announced his death in a statement.

A relative and a Palestinian official later confirmed the news.

As a loyal aide to Palestinian leaders – first Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas – Erekat clung to this strategy until his death, even as hopes for Palestinian statehood sank to new lows.

Abbas said Erekat’s death was a “great loss for Palestine and our people, and we feel deeply saddened by his loss, especially in light of these difficult circumstances facing the Palestinian cause”.

Erekat “will be remembered as the righteous son of Palestine, who stood at the forefront defending the causes of his homeland and its people”, Abbas added, saying flags will be flown at half-mast for three days.

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli cabinet minister and peace negotiator, called Erekat’s death “a big loss for those who believe in peace, both on the Palestinian side and the Israeli side”.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said Erekat was a “leading voice for Palestinians and for peace”. 

His willingness to engage and talk when it was not always easy or popular was a clear demonstration of his belief that through dialogue and negotiation, even the most difficult issues could be resolves. 

“His contribution to peace, including the Oslo Peace Process, is testament to that,” Coveney said. 

“I met with Dr Erekat on many occasions during my visits to the region and in Dublin, when he accompanied President Abbas on his visit in 2018. We spoke regularly and I was always impressed by his commitment, which we share, to a just and lasting peace,” he said. 

“While Dr Erekat’s vision for peace was not achieved during his lifetime, it is for all of us in the international community to honour that commitment by working together for a pathway for peace in the Middle East,” Coveney added. 

I would like to extend my sympathies to his family and friends at this very difficult time, and to the Palestinian community in Ireland who will mourn his loss. 

Saeb Erekat’s life

Erekat was born on 28 April 1955 in Jerusalem. He spent most of his life in the occupied West Bank town of Jericho, and as a child he witnessed Palestinians fleeing to nearby Jordan during the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

He studied abroad, earning a BA and MA in international relations from San Francisco State University and later moved to the UK, completing a PhD at the University of Bradford, where he focused on conflict resolution.

When he returned to the West Bank he became a professor at An-Najah University in Nablus and an editor at the Al-Quds newspaper. A self-described pragmatist, he invited Israeli students to visit the university in the late 1980s and condemned violence on all sides.

He was nevertheless convicted of incitement by an Israeli military court in 1987 after troops raided the university and found an English-language newsletter he had authored in which he wrote that “Palestinians must learn how to endure and reject and resist″ all the forms of occupation.

Erekat insisted he was advocating peaceful resistance and not armed struggle, and he was later given an eight-month suspended sentence and fined £4,700.

The first Palestinian uprising erupted later that year in the form of mass protests, general strikes and clashes with Israeli troops. That uprising, along with US pressure on Israel, culminated in the Madrid conference, widely seen as the start of the Middle East peace process.

Erekat was a prominent representative of Palestinians living inside the occupied territories at the time, but became a close aide to Arafat when the exiled Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) returned to the territories following the 1993 Oslo accords.

In subsequent years he routinely served as Arafat’s translator, and was sometimes accused of editing his remarks to soften the rough edges of the guerrilla leader-turned-aspiring statesman.

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Throughout the 1990s, Erekat was a frequent guest on news programmes, where he condemned violence on both sides but warned that the peace process was at risk of collapse because of Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the territories.

Erekat was part of the Palestinian delegation at Camp David in 2000, when US president Bill Clinton brought the two sides together for marathon talks aimed at reaching a final agreement. The talks ended inconclusively and a few months later a second and far more violent uprising erupted.

Arafat died in in 2004 but Erekat continued as a top aide to Abbas and served as a senior negotiator in sporadic peace efforts in the late 2000s.

Erekat resigned as chief negotiator in 2011 after a trove of documents was leaked to the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera showing that the Palestinian leadership had offered major concessions in past peace talks that were never made public.

But Erekat remained a senior Palestinian official and a close adviser to Abbas, who later appointed him secretary general of the PLO.

Israel and the Palestinians have not held substantive talks since Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in 2009.

But Erekat continued to call for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, accusing the Israeli leader of putting a “nail in the coffin” of hopes for peace by continuing to expand settlements.

Erekat is survived by his wife, two sons, twin daughters and eight grandchildren.

With reporting by Hayley Halpin

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