The man who was responsible for the Oslo Accord and its promise of two nations– Palestine and Israel — living side-by-side in peace, died on Tuesday after falling victim to the coronavirus.
It was poetic justice that the last hours of Saeb Erekat were spent in an Israeli hospital, cared by Jewish doctors who tried in vain to save the man who was supposedly their enemy.
Perhaps in his last act, Erekat has sent a message to both his followers and detractors that when all is said and done, we are one humanity; be it Jew or Arab, Black or White, Hindu or Muslim.
I say 'perhaps' because I have witnessed the slow and painful oblivion of the Palestinian cause, primarily at the hands of their own leadership, many of whom I had admired but who failed to see the larger picture and recognize, as Erakat did, that the future lies in learning from our past mistakes and not repeating them again and again hoping for a different outcome.
Erekat recognized that the future lies in learning from past mistakes.
Erekat was born in Abu Dis, a village just east of Jerusalem and was only 12 years old when he was detained by Israeli troops for writing anti-occupation graffiti and posting fliers and throwing stones. It was 1967 and Jordan had lost the West Bank to Israel after the six-day war.
Occupation did not deter the young Erekat from seeking knowledge beyond the 'occupied' territories. In 1972, Erekat moved to San Francisco to attend college and later San Francisco State University where he received a BA in international relations and an MA in political science in 1979. He then headed to the U.K. where he completed his PhD in peace and conflict studies at the University of Bradford in England.
By the time he returned to Jericho in the Occupied West Bank, Saeb Erekat was already the sharp and articulate voice of the Palestinian cause, breaking the stereotype of the Yasser Arafats of the movement who could hardly convey their cause to any Western audience.
Shibley Telhami, of the Brookings Institute, mourned Erekat's death by saying, "Today, the goal that Erekat pursued for all of his political career — a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, living at peace with Israel — is further away than it has been at any time since the 1993 Oslo Accords."
The question that remains unanswered is this: Who will deliver a sovereign Palestine to the Palestinian people and when will this happen?
The burden falls on the shoulders of Israel. Just as they tried to save Erekat, they owe a Palestinian state to the Palestinians of the West Bank, no matter what its shape.
For a start Israel will have to acknowledge it is in violation of international law by continuing its occupation of the West Bank. I am against this occupation not because I am Muslim or a friend of the Palestinians, but because I am against the occupation of any land by a foreign country.
Whether it is Morocco's continued occupation of Western Sahara, Pakistan's occupation of Balochistan, Sudan's occupation of Darfur, Indonesia's now ended occupation of East Timor or the refusal by four Muslim countries — Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran — to end the occupation of Kurdistan, for me, they all merit equal attention.
Arab and Islamic countries must acknowledge that Israel is a legitimate Jewish state.
For the process to begin, let the Arab and Islamic countries first acknowledge that Israel is a legitimate Jewish State, home to Jews many millennia before the Arabs first invaded and occupied the Jewish Temple Mount, where they built the Aqsa Mosque and later the Dome on the Rock.
Saeb Erekat, I hope, would agree.
Tarek Fatah is a Robert J. and Abby B. Levine Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, and a columnist at the Toronto Sun.