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Why did Palestinian leadership neglect hunger striking athlete?

The Palestinian leadership’s silence regarding the plight of national footballer Mahmoud Sarsak and other Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike derives from the fear that the more empowered Palestinians become in their opposition to Israeli occupation, the more likely they are to overthrow the Palestinian Authority.

By Mosab Qashoo

Anyone following the Palestinian struggle will have heard about Mahmoud Sarsak, the imprisoned Palestinian footballer who this week ended a hunger strike of over three months. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have been publicizing their upcoming meeting with the head of the Israeli Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz, leaving a striking absence of any official comment on Sarsak’s situation.

It seems very bizarre that the PA and PLO ignored one of their national heroes, a rising star in the society’s most popular sport, who was on the brink of death. He was the easiest person to defend. He has never been involved in politics, is not a member of a political party, and had all the necessary Israel-issued permits. He was one of the youngest people to make the Palestinian national soccer team. Above all, he has not been charged or convicted by Israel of any wrongdoing, although Israel held him for three years.

Even considering the PA and the PLO more cynically, any politician could have seen a man in such a situation as a gift from the political gods. Imagine the affirmation they would have received if they negotiated his release. Imagine the photo-ops of officials visiting the soccer team Sarsak was supposed to join when he was seized by Israel. They could have even organized children’s soccer games in his honor. Yet these authorities didn’t not take advantage of this opportunity, neither for selfless nor for self-serving gains.

According to his mother, Sarsak remains in Marash clinic in the Ramle prison, refused access to a proper civilian hospital. He has been refused family visits, which was a condition that Israel had agreed to in previous deals with other hunger strikers. Instead, he was allowed a three-minute phone call with his mother. His eventual release was negotiated so late that Sarsak easily could have died before agreeing to anything.

Most importantly, if Israel decides that he incited other prisoners to go on hunger strike or does any political organizing after his release, he will be arrested again. Agreeing to these terms indicates that the lawyers who negotiated his release, who are paid by the Palestinian Authority, seem to be more interested ending the hunger strikes rather than ameliorating the prisoners’ conditions. Instead of fighting for the rights of their clients, these lawyers appeared to pressure them into accepting whatever deal Israel presents.

Palestinian politicians continue to ignore the three remaining hunger strikers, Akram Rikhawi, Samer al-Barq and Hassan Safadi. Safadi quit his initial hunger strike after over seventy days. He resumed the strike after his administrative detention had been renewed, contrary to the deal he reached with Israel. If the PA really wanted to prevent their deaths, it would be campaigning for them now, not when they’re gasping for their last breath.

While all this might seem odd, it is actually quite a cunning move on the part of those bodies. The Palestinian Authority maintains its power by channeling Palestinian energy into creating a picture of normalcy. It provides the Palestinians in the West Bank with the symbolic functions that a real sovereign state would have, while behind the scenes, everything is controlled by Israel.

For example, the Palestinian passport, seen as one of the most important symbols of national identity, is still inscribed with the Israeli-issued military ID number assigned to that person. These celebrated symbols of statehood do have Palestinian colors and symbols on them but they are still functionally Israeli documents. In another example, the PA has created an official ministry for prisoners, which renders the occupation permanent while simultaneously normalizing the mass imprisonment of Palestinians by Israel.

While Palestinian officials pretend to make real changes, such changes are impossible to implement while Israel still occupies the territories and prevents the refugees from returning. The empty symbolic gestures of the PA and the PLO obscure the occupation from view as much as possible, especially within their “Ramallah bubble.”

The brave activism demonstrated by the various waves of hunger strikers is a direct threat to their scheme. They want Palestinians to forget the occupation and its brutality. The hunger strikers bring this to the front and center. They represent a decentralized and informal “people power” that cannot be easily contained and controlled, at levels unseen since the First Intifada.

The Palestinian Authority fears an intifada perhaps more than Israel, as another uprising would erase its final remaining excuse to stay in existence, as the symbol of a normalized Palestinian state with formal negotiators, armies and ambassadors.

In an intifada, the people speak and act directly for themselves. For Sarsak, each person could be his/her own prisoner minister. Most importantly, an intifada would present a direct confrontation with the occupation the PA is so desperately trying to imagine away. Thus the PA and the PLO have been silent for fear of awakening the people from their collective daydream of non-occupied life. The narrative of Mahmoud Sarsak, heroic national football star taking on the occupation armed only with an empty stomach, had the ability to bring the intifada back, and the PA knows it.

Mosab Qashoo grew up in an agricultural village outside of the West Bank town of Qalqilia, between the first and second intifadas. He studied Information Technology, Industrial Engineering & Conflict Management in the West Bank and London. He is currently based in New York City, where he is a food activist and founder of Palestine Farm Project, which provides support to farmers in order to create a sustainable agricultural economy in the West Bank.

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    1. Jack

      They are clearly scared of loosing their aid and power from US and Israel. Same thing with the UN vote that died out due pressure from Israel and the US. Palestinians are indeed in need of a new leadership.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Laurent Szyster

      The PA does not fear palestinians’ empowerment “in their opposition to Israeli occupation”.

      If fears Islamic Jihad’s “militancy”.

      Why do *you* support it ?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard SM

      Something like a hunger strike, and other forms non-violent protest, are better without promotion by politicians. A hunger-strike will generate its own publicity. When politicians get involved it makes it look like they’ve hi-jacked it for their own purposes OR they organized it originally. The PLO and Hamas kept back – and they were well-advised to do so.

      Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      Sarsak is from Gaza. I wonder if this doesn’t influence the PA to some extent.

      Reply to Comment
    5. One should ask “where is the PA altogether?”. Instead of leading and organizing the civil disobedience, they are engaged in a letter writing campaign and are completely missing from the scene.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Congratulations Mosab. Now work with your fellow Palestinians to have free elections and form a government that is truly representative of the Palestinian people, and not corrupt (and get rid of those old corrupt incompetents); then have it begin massive, Gandhi like, civil protests, while sending representatives to all the governments of the world, pointing out the utter devoid of decency actions of the Israel government, and start a campaign as did South Africa, plus tell the US to mind its own business, and in time we will have in Israel the same outcome as South Africa: a recognition that Zionist can only end up as fascism, that no ethnic group should assume they can have a homeland, but all need to learn to live in peace, and have a one state in the entire area of Palestine.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Laurent Szyster,above, while of a rather blunt “us” “them” mentality, seems correct in (sort of) saying that the second intifada, which morphed into a series of suicide bombings killing 100’s, was hardly civil disobedience. I have read other commentary which depicts the PA as afraid that renewed popular rebellion could lead to a new wave of such bombings. The first and second intifadas are different in tone and outcome; saying that any intifada or popular uprising is identical with civil disobedience or nonviolence is just false.
      The PA is indeed beholden to the US, EU, and Israel for its income stream. They have tried to build a pseudo government thereby, but the derived economy seems completely dependent on this aid and, in my guess, much of this aid has gone to buying off people by giving them a “job”; I hear little of a viable, autonomous economy. Tony Blair speaks of double diget econmic growth, but, in recall, some UN observers state that the economy would retract significantly without said income stream.
      Together, these considerations suggest a leadership afraid of action they do not initiate, so control. Abbas is said to hate violence, and I suspect that true. But nonviolence risks violence in that others must be convinced, or prevented, from acting violently. Abbas seems to believe that only PA control can so prevent a violent spiral. This says something about his view of his people; it may also say that he is conceptually helpless outside the state actor box, endless trying to negotiate a final settlement which Israel does not seem to want very badly. So Abbas lives in symbolic refusal to “give in,” his Authority paying out checks (when Israel lets it)to keep “belief” in his negotiation alive.
      Sarsak may or may not want to be a political actor. His fast unto death may have been just a personal refusal to further endure the contraditions of Israeli State policy which have destroyed his future. If he recovers, and it is not a given he will, he may decide to speak out against what he and others have endured. Symbolically, his detention under Israeli caprice (I know, Laurent Szyster, all for the protection of innocent Israelis), leading him to risk exiting this life as his only free option, writes large what many in the Bank endure and feel. When nonviolence works it breaks the standard codes of acceptible action in such a way that blame cannot be placed on the act so doing; but this is a necessary, not sufficient, condition for efficacy. The like of Szyster, above, will allow only those actions which are inherently futile, and nonviolence is not that. True nonviolence would cause Szyster to howl; it might, probably would, fail as well–at least for some time.
      Sarsak, and the Bank women who are beginning (and I hope continue) to act on their own offer a new horizon. Like all horizons, this one is very far away, and that should be remembered. But this horizon, if steadfastly sought, will unnerve the Szysters, and they will do all they can to put it down. That’s when you know you’re getting somewhere. The like of Sarsak (symbolically) and these women must face the violence of their own people if it errupts. The power of suicide bombing must be taken away from the Israeli security apparatus–and away from the bombers themselves. Those bombings have controlled both Israeli and Bank response for too long. Only the Palestinian West Bankers can find a way to do that; if, when, they do, they will have shown humanity something new.
      Unlike the post author, I help no one. I apologize for my arrogance. But I believe what I have said.

      Reply to Comment
    8. M. Dennis Paul, Ph.D.

      I concur with Warren Metzler (above)that it is time to give notice to the bloated and illegal PA. It is also time to end the grip of Hamas and give the people of Palestine a chance to steer their own ship. While not wholly to blame, both entities have significantly stood in the way of Palestine’s liberation. Warren’s recommendations are, in my opinion, sound, effective and timely. Thank you for this article, Mosab.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Niz


      I am not sure if the Palestinians need to organize elections and then go into organizing ‘non-violent’ acts! I think the institutions of Palestine should be the Israeli institutions. Consequently Palestinians should start demanding equality with the jews under the same state institutions while transforming Israel itself from an apartheid state into a one that respects diversity and human rights! The continuation of the PA is the continuation of the paradigm of separation.

      Reply to Comment