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A war on Palestinian soccer: Free Mahmoud al-Sarsak
Published Thursday 07/06/2012 (updated) 20/06/2012 23:02
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Palestinian national soccer team member Mahmoud al-Sarsak completed 81 days of a grueling hunger-strike. He has sustained the strike despite the fact that nearly 2,000 Palestinian inmates had called off their own 28-day hunger strike weeks ago.

Although the story of Palestinian prisoners in Israel speaks to a common reality of unlawful detentions and widespread mistreatment, al-Sarsak’s fate can also be viewed within its own unique context. The soccer player, who once sought to take the name and flag of his nation to international arenas, was arrested by Israeli soldiers in July 2009 while en route to join the national team in the West Bank.

Al-Sarsak was branded an 'illegal combatant' by Israel’s military judicial system, and was since imprisoned without any charges or trial.

Al-Sarsak is not alone in the continued hunger strike. Akram al-Rekhawi, a diabetic prisoner demanding proper medical care, has refused food for 57 days.

Both men are in dire medical condition. Al-Sarsak, once of unmatched athletic build, is now gaunt beyond recognition. The already ill al-Rekhawi is dying.

According to rights groups, an Israeli court on May 30 granted prison doctors 12 days to allow independent doctors to visit the prisoners, further prolonging their suffering and isolation.

Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, which has done a remarkable job battling the draconian rules of Israeli military courts, petitioned the court to meet with both al-Sarsak and al-Rekhawi.

Sadly, the story here becomes typical. PHRI, along with other prisoners’ rights groups, are doing all that civil society organizations can do within such an oppressive legal and political situation.

Families are praying. Social media activists are sending constant updates and declaring solidarity. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is merely looking on -- not due to any lack of concern for human rights, but due to the selective sympathy of Western governments and media.

Think of the uproar made by US media over the fate of blind Chinese political activist Chen Guangcheng. When he took shelter in the US embassy in Beijing, a near-diplomatic crisis ensued.

Guangcheng was finally flown to the US on May 19, and he recently delivered a talk in New York before an astounded audience.

"The 40-year-old, blind activist said that his lengthy detention (of seven years) demonstrates that lawlessness is still the norm in China," reported the New York Post.

"Is there any justice? Is there any rationale in any of this?" Chen asked. Few in the US media would contend with the statement. But somehow the logic becomes entirely irrelevant when the perpetrator of injustice is Israel, and the victim is a Palestinian.

Al-Rekhawi is not blind, but he has many medical ailments. He has been in Ramle prison clinic since his detention in 2004, receiving severely inadequate medical care.

Al-Sarsak, who has been a witness to many tragedies, is now becoming one.

The 25-year old had once hoped to push the ranking of his national team back to a reasonable standing. If Palestinians ever deserve to be called ‘fanatics’, it would be in reference to soccer.

As a child growing up in Gaza, I remember playing soccer in few minute increments, braving Israeli military curfews, risking arrests, injury and even death. Somehow, in a very crowded refugee camp, soccer becomes tantamount to freedom.

Palestine's soccer ranking at 164th in the world is testament not to any lack of passion for the game, but to the constant Israeli attempts at destroying even that national aspiration.

The examples of Israeli war on Palestinian soccer are too many to count, although most of them receive little or no media coverage whatsoever.

In 2004 Israel blocked several essential players from accompanying the national team out of Gaza for a second match against Chinese Taipei. (Palestine had won the first match 8-0.)

The obstacles culminated in the March 2006 bombing of the Palestinian Football Stadium in Gaza, which reduced the grass field to a massive crater. Then, in the 2008 war on Gaza, things turned bloody as Israel killed three national soccer players: Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe. It also bombed their stadium again.

Al-Sarsak was a promising new face of Palestinian soccer. In times of Palestinian disunity and factionalism, it was the national team that kept a symbolic unity between Gaza and the West Bank – and indeed Palestinians everywhere.

These young men exemplify hope that better times are ahead. But Sarsak’s star is now fading, as is his life. His mother, who hasn’t seen him since his arrest, told Ma'an that she thinks of him every minute of each day. "Why is there no one moving to save his life?" she asked.

Writing in the Nation on May 10, Dave Zirin wrote, "Imagine if a member of Team USA Basketball—let’s say Kobe Bryant—had been traveling to an international tournament only to be seized by a foreign government and held in prison for three years without trial or even hearing the charges for which he was imprisoned ... Chances are all the powerful international sports organizations—the IOC, FIFA—would treat the jailing nation as a pariah until Kobe was free. And chances are that even Laker-haters would wear buttons that read, ‘Free Kobe.'"

Al-Sarsak is the Bryant of his people. But ask any political commentator and he will tell you why Mahmoud al-Sarsak is not Kobe Bryant, and why al-Rekhawi is not Chen. It is the same prevalent logic of a powerful Washington-based pro-Israel lobby and all the rest.

Even if the logic was founded, why are international sports institutions not standing in complete solidarity with the dying al-Sarsak? Why don't soccer matches include a moment of solidarity with killed Palestinian players, and the dying young man aching to join his teammates on the field once more?

Why is Israel not fully and comprehensively boycotted by every international sports organization?

"As long as al-Sarsak remains indefinitely detained and as long as Israel targets sport and athletes as legitimate targets of war, they have no business being rewarded by FIFA or the UEFA, let alone even being a part of the community of international sports," wrote Zirin.

It would be a belated step, but an unequivocally urgent one, for Palestinian sportsmen are literally dying.

Ramzy Baroud is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com

1 ) Tibi / Tubas
07/06/2012 15:31
Israeli jails provide Food to eat, and
Choosing not to eat is NOT a war !!

2 ) eddie reade / ireland
08/06/2012 02:40
Your peoples plight will one day be seen for what it is. A plight of a downtrodden people who strive only for basic human rights. The right to national self determination, a right which our people still strive for. Your day will come. Solidarity from Ireland

3 ) Prince / Nigeria
08/06/2012 18:23
Do you know that International Olympic Committee has refused even a minute silence for Israeli Athletes killed by Palestinian terrorism?

4 ) @ eddie-2 / A Waiting Game
09/06/2012 19:06
Palestinian already have "national self determination" in Gaza & Areas A/B, where 99% of their population lives, and the Irish would still be in conflict, if they'd demanded large parts of Britian, like Pals do of Israel. It takes two sides for a war, but only Palestinian prisoners are fighting. Israel just continues providing food and shelter, until Pal jail sentences are served, so this is less of a "war", and more of a Waiting Game !!!

5 ) shirley / australia
11/06/2012 05:32
yhis young man now starving to gain his human rights and freedom his only crime to be palestinian and to aspire to represent his people Shame on FIFA not standing in Solidarity Isreal was created by Terrorist org Urgon etcdont use terrorism card Jews were labelled terrorists by Hitler for warsaw uprising and world cheered as heros but the likes Of Prince see no similarity with pals trying to gain freedom and consider them wrong to resist in any waywhiile jews are the eternal victoms

6 ) shirley / australia
11/06/2012 11:35
call on all PALS to reise up and support this young man who is dying and for mass strike and all prisoners go back left this brother in arms behind with 2 others call on PA and HAMAS to demand his release and pals to cheer wend of general strike leave these behind get upo get up get up Isreal will be held responsible for SARSAKs life the world is watching god walks beside this young man GET UP all pal media all Palestinians

7 ) european / EU
12/06/2012 11:27
To no. 4: Do you really call it "national self determination", if you can't even decide to import food, medicine, fuel etc. to your people? People in Gaza has to smuggle all those goods into their land, or otherwise wait until Israel or Egypt ALLOWS the import. Don't talk to me about arms smuggle into the country as well, I know this also is happening, and it is not right, but ALL the countries with "national self determination" bring arms to their own land. Even Israel. Why not Palestinians?

8 ) shirley / australia
12/06/2012 12:41
get outr in the street all pals in support and call on all pals to email UN at sg@un,org and to UNHRC NAVI PILLAY and demand UN raise its voice for release prisoners and stop its silence and all navi pliiay criticize syria with US propaganda but says nothing of pals near death in Isreal prison and war crimes aginst them and political prisoners call on Maan News to put SARSAK on front Page not worrying about Syria when your own people Dying under ypour nose where IS PA and Hamas support these 3

9 ) Carlos / usa
12/06/2012 14:15
arresting outstanding soccer players because they are Palestinian is war on Palestinian moral. Keeping Al Sarsak in jail for 3 years without charge or evidence is a crime. Al Sarsak has the most notoriety & the tip of iceberg. I remember a couple of years ago israel refused to allow college students from Gaza to travel to US to take advantage of the scholarships they won by excelling in study. That was a war on Palestinians too. The hunger strike by al Sarsak is the return salvo.

10 ) KM / UK
14/06/2012 22:23
“Al-Sarsak agreed to drink milk but would only be fed by his lawyer. Israeli Prison Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told Ma'an that al-Sarsak had started eating Monday, and said she did not know why.” Once Sarsak started drinking milk and continues to drink it, he effectively broke his fast. I agree with #2, milk is a nutritious food. His hunger strike now is meaningless and will be ignored by the public at large.

11 ) @ European-7 / Waiting-4
18/06/2012 17:21
1- Middle East countries can NOT take friendly international relations for granted, like in the EU.
2- Without these friendly relations, there are many EU countries that could NOT just "decide to import food, medicine, fuel etc. to their people".
3- YES I call it "national self determination", and all that Palestinians are entitled to, until they exchange their armed struggle for NEGOTIATIONS. &,
4- Israel offered friendly relations at Oslo, and still constantly offers it today.

12 ) Brian Cohen / Israel
18/06/2012 22:37
War is war. Strange that none of the Palestinian supporters out there have called on the Palestinians to stop committing war crimes. Palestinians do not have the right to shoot rockets at civilians, throw rocks at the heads of people driving their cars, or throw molotov cocktails at passenger buses - yet they do this just about every day of the week (over 350 rockets and mortars so far from Gaza, all fired at civilians). Want to release him to play soccer? Tell Abbas to negotiate for peace.

13 ) southparkbear / usa
19/06/2012 16:17
it is not fair he has learned few soccer tricks while staying in an israeli resort
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