Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas paid his final respects to veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat on Wednesday, as the casket bearing Erekat’s body was brought to the presidential compound in Ramallah for the leadership to say farewell.
Erekat, who was secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, died Tuesday at a Jerusalem hospital after suffering multiple organ failure. The 65-year-old, who underwent a lung transplant in the United States in 2017, had tested positive for the coronavirus in early October.
The casket was borne aloft by six members of the presidential guard and carried along a guard of honor before being laid in front of Abbas and senior Palestinian leaders. It was draped in the Palestinian flag. A keffiyeh, the scarf popularized by former PLO leader Yasser Arafat and an important symbol of Palestinian identity, was laid across it.
A wreath was placed on top of the casket as Abbas, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and others stood quietly to pay their respects. All of those present were wearing masks.
After a few minutes the casket was lifted up again and carried to a waiting vehicle. As it was carried away, Abbas and several other officials waved their hands in a final gesture of farewell.
Following a roughly 45-minute drive, the vehicle arrived outside the Erekat family home in the West Bank town of Jericho, where mourners had come to pay their respects.
The casket was then transferred to Jericho’s Old Mosque where the funeral prayer, the Salat al Janazah, was said. Finally, it was transported to the Jericho cemetery for burial, where former friends and colleagues spoke by the graveside.
Abbas paid tribute Tuesday to Erekat as a “great fighter” who “stood at the forefront defending the causes of his homeland and his people in the fields of the national struggle and in the international arena.”
His death represents a “great loss” to the Palestinian people, “especially in light of these difficult circumstances facing the Palestinian cause,” the PA President said, in comments reported by Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
“Fatah mourns its great national son, Dr. Saeb Erekat,” a social media post by his party Fatah read.
Abbas declared a mourning period of three days and ordered flags be flown at half-mast.
‘He will be missed’
Other high-profile figures, both Palestinian and Israeli, also eulogized Erekat in comments Tuesday.
Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said Erekat’s death marked a “significant transition in Palestinian history and reality.”
“He was firmly committed to his people’s rights, unwavering in his pursuit of a just peace, & totally undaunted in his quest for freedom & rights. Rest in peace & power my friend,” Ashrawi tweeted.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that Erekat had sent her a message while he was unwell, saying, “I’m not finished with what I was born to do.”
“My deepest condolences to the Palestinians and his family. He will be missed,” she tweeted.
Another Israeli official, Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the leftist Meretz party, recalled that he and the Palestinian negotiator “argued a lot, but despite his frustration with the situation he never abandoned his adherence to the two-state solution, Israel and Palestine. Rest in peace, peace will be your Will.”
One of the most prominent Palestinian politicians of the last few decades, Erekat was a major part of negotiations between the Palestinian officials and Israel during intensive peace process negotiations in the 1990s.
He served as deputy head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991, as the administration of US President George H.W. Bush pushed forward efforts to advance a resolution to the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
As the two sides tried to build on the breakthrough Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s, Erekat became the chief Palestinian negotiator, a position he would hold on-and-off until his passing.
From Oslo onwards, he advocated direct negotiations towards a two-state solution. Deeply distrustful of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erekat focused most of his criticism in later years on the man who would become Israel’s longest-serving leader.
In 2018, following Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, Erekat said, “His speech further exposes Israel’s systematic denial of our right to exist, to live in freedom and to celebrate our national identity. The reality on the ground in occupied Palestine is a manifestation of what Israel is: A colonial-apartheid state… For the Israeli government, not only the issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees are off the table, but also Palestine’s very existence.”
Erekat believed Netanyahu had no intention of making the concessions necessary for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, a position reinforced by the advent of US President Donald Trump. The Trump administration’s plan for Middle East peace required few concessions from the Israelis while demanding sweeping concessions from the Palestinians.
“What we hear about Jerusalem being Israel’s capital, dropping the refugee issue, security, borders, it cannot be called the Deal of the Century,” Erekat told CNN’s Becky Anderson in January. “It is the fraud and the hoax of the century.”
It was a difficult time for Erekat. Diplomats and journalists who met him in the early weeks of 2020 found him emotionally drained, reflecting on a sense of personal failure, sometimes even close to tears as he tried again to argue the Palestinian cause.
Yet despite the challenges, Erekat continued to insist on the importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seeing no other paths to peace for the millions of Israelis and Palestinians across the region.
CNN’s Abeer Salman contributed to this report.