Saeb Erekat, a prominent Palestinian spokesman for decades, has died after contracting Covid-19, his family said.

Dr Erekat, 65, was one of the most passionate and experienced advocates of the Palestinian cause.

Although well known in foreign ministries across the world and regularly featured in the media, he was on the second tier of Palestinian politics and diplomacy.

Fluent in English as well as his native Arabic, he was a high-profile spokesman for Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, while never a serious candidate to succeed them.

Dr Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), confirmed on 8 October that he had contracted the coronavirus.

Three years earlier he had undergone a lung transplant in the United States that left his immune system compromised.

He died after being hospitalised for weeks in Jerusalem's Hadassah Medical Centre.

"With hearts full of sorrow and pain, and with patience, Erekat's clan everywhere mourns to the Palestinian Arab people and to the Arab and Muslim nation Saeb Erekat," his extended family clan posted on Facebook.

Dr Erekat was undoubtedly one of the most high profile and most experienced spokesmen for the Palestinian cause, his fluent English making him a regular guest on international media, including in Ireland.

He had studied in the United States and the United Kingdom when younger but returned to the West Bank to teach.

When he was born in 1955, his family was living in Abu Dis, a village outside Jerusalem. When he was a child they moved to Jericho in the Jordan Valley, and when he was 12, Israel captured the territory along with the rest of the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.

He left the West Bank in the 1970s to go to college. After studying political science and international relations at San Francisco State University and gaining a doctorate in peace studies at Bradford, he worked as a lecturer in Nablus, before becoming a journalist.

It was in 1991 that he began to come to international attention, when he was appointed vice-chair of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Madrid Peace Conference during the presidency of George HW Bush.

After the Chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, returned from exile in the mid-1990s following interim peace agreements, it was Dr Erekat who oversaw preparations for elections under the newly created Palestinian Authority, subsequently becoming elected to parliament himself.

He became increasingly prominent as a negotiator, taking part in the Camp David summit in 2000 which was hosted by US President Bill Clinton. 

Saeb Erekat (C) with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at Camp David

Those talks failed and the second Palestinian uprising broke out three months later, leading to five years of bloodshed and marginalising advocates of a negotiated two-state solution.

In 2006, Dr Erekat's Fatah faction was weakened when it lost elections to its increasingly powerful domestic rival, the Islamist militant group Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel. 

In 2007, Hamas took over Gaza by force, dealing a further blow to Fatah's credibility. 

With Israel in control of East Jerusalem and Hamas in Gaza, Fatah was left with just limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, among scores of Israeli settlements.

Externally, the Palestinians also found themselves increasingly isolated as Israeli voters, from 2009 on, elected successive right-wing governments headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - long a critic of the Palestinian leadership.

Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in 2012 in Jerusalem

A senior advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who described Dr Erekat's death as "the departure of a brother and friend" which "represents a big loss for Palestine and for our people", Dr Erekat had been a staunch supporter of a two state solution, under which the country of Palestine would be created alongside Israel, even after the collapse of peace talks in 2014.

Saeb Erekat and Mahmoud Abbas at an Arab Foreign Ministers meeting in January 2015. 

The election of Donald Trump as US President in 2016 had presented another substantial challenge. 

Dr Erekat regularly exchanged barbs with Mr Trump, accusing him of pro-Israel bias, eventually leading the Palestinians to stop dealing with American leader in 2017.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney paid tribute to Dr Erekat saying that "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 resolved".

Mr Coveney said he had met Dr Erekat many times and that it was now up to all in the international community to honour his vision of peace by working for peace in the Middle East.

Former British prime minister and Middle east Envoy Tony Blair said today that while he and Dr Erekat had many differences over the peace process, he had seen the sincerity, knowledge and commitment that Dr Erekat had to the Palestinian people and to peace.

He was, Mr Blair said, "a legendary negotiator, aware of every intricacy and detail of the 'two state solution' and a tireless advocate of it."

Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni expressed her sadness at Dr Erekat’s death saying that he used to tell her that reaching peace was his destiny. 

He had texted her from hospital during his recent Covid illness telling her "I’m not finished with what I was born to do".

Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat during the opening session of the World Economic Forum May 2107

Saeb Erekat told the Reuters News Agency in July of last year that the two state solution he advocated was the only way forward saying "if not this year, in five years, 10 years, 50 years. But the unfortunate thing is the longer it takes, the more victims, the more people will be killed, the more violence, the more extremism. Saving lives is about going the path of two states, and it is doable".

In the final months of his life he remained adamant that in the long run, his vision would prevail.

"The idea of the two-state solution will never die," he said. "There is no other option."

The Palestinian President has declared a three day mourning period for Dr Erekat, who is expected to be buried on tomorrow.

Additional reporting Reuters