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.”
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.
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.