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Hunger striking Palestinian footballer at risk of death

Mahmoud Sarsak, midfielder for the Palestinian national football team, has been on hunger strike for 82 days in protest of his detention without trial. Physicians for Human Rights has expressed “grave concern for his life.”

Palestinians in Nablus play football handcuffed in solidarity with Sarsak (Activestills)

Palestinians in Nablus play football handcuffed in solidarity with Sarsak (Activestills)

Sarsak (25) is a resident of the Rafah refugee camp and a prominent player in the Palestinian national football team. On July 22, 2009 Sarsak arrived at the Erez checkpoint between Gaza and Israel with a valid permit to enter the West Bank, where he was seeking to advance his sporting career, after already having received offers from a German football team.

However, the permit didn’t help Sarsak, who was arrested on site and branded an “unlawful combatant” – a legal status similar to that of administrative detainees, which allows Israeli security authorities to hold a person in detention without charge or trial for an unlimited amount of time, with military court supervision over the extension of the detention every six months. The detainee has no way to know why he is held in prison – beyond a vague statement regarding his status as “a threat to regional security” – or if there is any evidence against him. Sarsak has also not been able to see any of his family in three years, as all visitations from the Gaza Strip are forbidden by Israel.

Poster for the release of Mahmoud Sarsak

Poster for the release of Mahmoud Sarsak

In the beginning of 2012, several administrative detainees launched an unlimited hunger strike, following the successful strikes of Khader Adnan and Hana Shalbi, which led to their release. On Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, last April, the strike spread to more than 1,600 convicted prisoners, who wished to protest prison conditions. While most inmates stopped their strikes as a deal was struck last month – Sarsak and two others decided to continue with their protest.

Sarsak has now been on strike for 82 days, the longest Palestinian hunger strike in an Israeli prison. A Physicians for Human Rights report from earlier this week indicates that Sarsak’s condition is deteriorating and that there is a real threat to his life. Following the report, Sarak was taken to a civilian hospital, but then returned to the IPS medical ward. According to the physician who examined him, Sarsak has lost one-third of his body weight, he is suffering from repeated loss of consciousness, and his heart muscle is in immediate danger of collapse.

In reports in Palestinian media and in a clip released recently, Sarsak’s family members say that he was never involved in armed resistance against Israel, and that had he had any reason to fear arrest – he would never have voluntarily left the Gaza Strip for the Israeli-controlled Erez Checkpoint and West Bank. Other than the fear for his life, health and freedom – the family also fears for their son’s football career, and calls upon the International Olympics’ Committee to bar Israel from participating in the London games as long as it holds Sarsak in prison.

Sarsak’s current detention warrant is due to expire on August 22, but can be extended further indefinitely. With him on strike are prisoner Akram Rikhawi (58 days) and administrative detainee Samer Al-Barq (18 days). Israel currently holds some 4,500 Palestinian prisoners, and about 300 administrative detainees.

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    1. Anonymous

      He’s a proud member of Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad’s Saraya (military wing) website has a plethora of articles on the soccer star from Gaza:
      You’re right, though, he is like Khader Adnan. Innocent victim until the second he walks out the door, then OMG! Turns out to be a terrorist. What a shock.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Rose

      ANONYMOUS prove something or shut up

      Reply to Comment
    3. aristeides

      FIFA could take a stand on this. And the German team could pressure its government.

      These things never seem to happen.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Anonymous

      Rose, I’ll shut up when 972 starts observing some basic standards of journalism. They covered up Khader Adnan’s proud support of suicide bombers to turn him into another “victim” of Israeli “oppression,” and now they are doing it again with this guy.
      You will not silence me.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Danny

      Perfect pretext for an athletic boycott on Israel. High time Israeli soccer and basketball teams were prevented from participating in any international events.
      Another boycott should probably be a cultural one, as Israel arrested this week the director of the Freedom Theater.
      No soccer, basketball or Shakespeare for criminal occupiers!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Matt

      I agree with Danny. For too long have Israeli soccer and basketball teams gone unpunished for the crimes of their government. There is no reason why collective punishment, a crime when used against Palestinians, should not be enforced against Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Piotr Berman

      “You’re right, though, he is like Khader Adnan. Innocent victim until the second he walks out the door, then OMG!”

      Indeed, Khader is back to what he was doing before: baking bread. OMG!

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      There are very few categories of Gazans that Israel allows to travel to West Bank (or anywhere). One of them are soccer players (specifically soccer, no tennis, chess etc.) I have no doubt that this is a formal response to pressure from international soccer authorities.

      International sport authorities should be concerned by the sabotage of national Palestinian teams by Israel and apply conditional and targeted sanctions.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Sherri Munnerlyn

      Anonymous, Whatever they might have been yesterday, or may be tomorrow, today as they embrace a hunger strike to respond to Injustices of unlawful Israeli detentions, they earn our admiration and respect for embracing nonviolent resistance and acts of self sacrifice as a response to Injustice.

      Reply to Comment
    10. ..::bEEp::..

      Very sad. Hunger strikes ruin a body – top to bottom. This man will not play soccer like he would have been able to before. Whether or not he’s released, he will be ruined.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Sarsak has taken erasure upon himself. I doubt I could fully comprehend why; but those with promise plummet harder.
      He has taken erasure upon himself. And he will be remembered for that. What the Israeli State fails to comprehend, inflaming their controled resolve to expunge yet more, is that no one–no one–owns “never forget.”

      Reply to Comment