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Issue #1551      13 June 2012

Free Mahmoud Sarsak

On June 3, Palestinian national soccer team member Mahmoud Sarsak completed 80 days of a gruelling hunger-strike. He had 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, 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.

Sarsak was branded an “illegal combatant” by Israel’s military judicial system, and was imprisoned without any charges or trial.

Sarsak is not alone in the continued hunger strike. Akram al-Rekhawi, a diabetic prisoner demanding proper medical care, has refused food for over 50 days.

At the time of writing, both men were reportedly in dire medical condition. Sarsak, once of unmatched athletic build, is now gaunt beyond recognition. The already ill al-Rekhawi is dying.

Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHRI), which has done a remarkable job battling the draconian rules of Israeli military courts, continues to petition the court to meet with both al-Sarsak and al-Rekhawi, according to Ma’an news agency.

Sadly, the story here becomes typical. PHRI, along with other prisoners’ rights groups, are doing all that civil society organisations 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.

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 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.

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, says she thinks of him every minute of each day. “Why is there no one moving to save his life?” she asks.  

Please sign this petition for Palestinian footballer MAHMOUD SARSAK!

Next article – Book Review – The People Smuggler

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