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Hundreds attend Erekat’s West Bank funeral as Palestinians mourn loss of ‘icon’

Mourners gather in Jericho after formal ceremony in Ramallah; some express hope of renewed negotiations with Israel after Biden’s election

Palestinian mourners and an honor guard carry the coffin of late Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat during his funeral procession in the West Bank city of Jericho on November 11, 2020 (Ahmad GHARABLI / PPO / AFP)
Palestinian mourners and an honor guard carry the coffin of late Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat during his funeral procession in the West Bank city of Jericho on November 11, 2020 (Ahmad GHARABLI / PPO / AFP)

Hundreds of mourners gathered on Wednesday in the West Bank city of Jericho for the funeral of Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat, who died a day earlier at the age of 65 due to complications from the coronavirus.

Earlier in the day, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hosted the official memorial ceremony for Erekat at his Ramallah compound, where he eulogized the envoy and negotiator as a “great fighter.”

Erekat’s body was then taken to Jericho for burial. Photos from the funeral showed that social distancing was not enforced, and not all the mourners wore masks.

Erekat was a lung transplant recipient who suffered from pulmonary fibrosis. After contracting the novel coronavirus, his prospects for recovery were dim given his history of respiratory illness.

He died on Tuesday at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, where he was taken last month after receiving treatment at home for several days.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki described Erekat as “an icon of the Palestinian cause.”

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki addresses the General Assembly prior to a vote on December 21, 2017, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

“He was a diplomat in every sense of the word,” Maliki told Palestine TV.

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor President Reuven Rivlin offered public condolences following Erekat’s death.

However, Palestinians and many world leaders eulogized Erekat, and there was cautious hope in some circles that the stalled peace process with Israel could be revived under Joe Biden’s presidency.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu watch Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, seated center left, and Israeli counterpart Dan Shomron, seated, during the signing of the agreement at Gaza’s Erez Crossing, Jan 15, 1997, on an accord extending Palestinian rule to most of the West Bank city of Hebron and other parts of the West Bank. US envoy Dennis Ross is standing center at rear. (AP Phto/Med Rawas, POOL)

Erekat led successive Palestinian negotiations with Israel for decades, including the talks that led to the signing of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, the first major peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians. A dominant figure in Palestinian politics for decades, he became secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2015, though his influence in shaping Ramallah’s relations with Israel and the world went far beyond the bureaucratic post.

L-R: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Vice President Joseph Biden and Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, listen, as President Barack Obama meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 28, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

But Erekat was also a controversial figure.

For some Israelis, his uncompromising rhetoric was emblematic of Palestinian rejectionism. He was notorious for falsely asserting that Israel had massacred hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp in 2002. And he was an adamant advocate of the Palestinian Authority’s ongoing policy of making payments to the families of Palestinian terrorists.

He was an outspoken and passionate advocate of Palestinian statehood, with many Israeli officials who sat across from him at the negotiating table vouching for his commitment to a two-state solution.

Honor guard carries the coffin of Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat during his funeral procession in the West Bank city of Jericho on November 11, 2020 (Ahmad GHARABLI / PPO / AFP)

For frustrated Palestinians, Erekat was part of an aging, unchanging leadership that had failed to deliver on its central promise — a state — even as it continued to coordinate with Israel.

The Palestinian Authority has stayed away from talks with Israel since the election of US President Donald Trump. Trump in December 2017 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a blow to the Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state, and the PA severed all dealings with the Trump administration after that.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Trump also broke with decades of US practice by not criticizing Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and cutting hundreds of million of dollars in financial aid to the PA after relations between Ramallah and Washington soured over the White House’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Trump’s controversial Middle East plan, apparently drafted with no Palestinian input, was preemptively rejected by Ramallah.

By the time of Erekat’s death, relations between Washington and the Palestinian Authority had effectively collapsed.

But Palestinian analyst Nour Odeh told AFP that up to his death Erekat “was always hopeful, always believed (peace) is achievable.”

“He was tireless, he was stubborn… He believed that this conflict will end and that this occupation will end,” she said.

Palestinian mourners carry the coffin of Saeb Erekat during his funeral procession in the West Bank city of Jericho on November 11, 2020 (Ahmad GHARABLI / PPO / AFP)

Odeh said that “like all Palestinians,” Erekat “would have rejoiced in the fact Donald Trump will be out of the White House.”

Commenting on Erekat’s death, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “Now is the time to continue his crucial work,” by renewing negotiations toward a “just and sustainable two-state solution.”

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