Hunger striking soccer player threatens Israeli-Palestinian deal

Soccer players in Mahmoud Sarsak's Gaza hometown of Rafah call for his release

By James M. Dorsey

A Palestinian soccer player on the 75th day of his prison hunger strike threaten to unhinge a two-week old Palestinian-Israeli deal to improve conditions for Palestinian prisoners and add to challenges to what amounts to a historic albeit tacit Israeli-Palestinian understanding on a long-term peaceful arrangement.
Mahmoud Sarsak, a 25-year old player for the Palestinian national soccer team, together with Akram al-Rekhawi, an imprisoned diabetic, refused to join hundreds of prisoners in ending their hunger strike on May 14 because they were not included in an Egyptian-mediated deal. Human rights groups said Israeli officials had promised to release Mr. Sarsak on July 1 if he agreed to end his hunger strike, but refused to put the offer in writing. Israeli officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Israel agreed as part of the deal to more family visits, an end to solitary confinement and limits to a controversial policy that allows Israel to imprison people for years without charge. Militant Palestinian groups pledged in exchange to halt all attacks on Israel.

Mr. Sarsak’s continued hunger strike amid reports that his health is rapidly deteriorating focuses attention on the plight of several imprisoned Palestinian soccer players and threatens to dash Israeli efforts to prevent a potentially explosive situation that could be sparked by Palestinians dying in Israeli custody.

Mr. Sarsak’s protest puts a dent in an evolving tacit understanding between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that controls Gaza, to abide by a long-term ceasefire rather than seek to definitively resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has taken various steps that strengthen Hamas at the expense of its rival, the Al-Fatah-controlled Palestinian authority in the West Bank headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel last year released more than a 1,000 prisoners in a deal with Hamas while at the same time strengthening controversial Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Mr. Abbas has refused to restart peace talks with Israel as long as it rejects a halt to its settlement activity. Hamas has long called for a long-term ceasefire while Israel effectively blocks the restart of stalled peace talks despite maintaining that it is seeking to negotiate a definitive end to its decades-old dispute with the Palestinians.

As if Mr. Sarsak’s deteriorating health in the clinic of Ramle prison wasn’t enough of a threat to the Israeli-Hamas understanding that was strengthened by the May 14 prisoner deal and a shift in power within Hamas from exiled leader Khalid Mishal to Gaza leader Ismail Hanniyeh, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak has potentially thrown in a monkey wrench of his own. Mr. Barak suggested this week that if the Palestinians continue to refuse to return to the negotiating table, Israel could withdraw unilaterally from occupied parts of the West Bank if Palestinian in a move that would amount to Israel determining the borders between Israel and Palestine.

Mr. Sarsak’s death in a nation passionate about soccer would likely spark mass protests and confrontations between Israeli security forces. It could also put pressure on militant Palestinian groups not to adhere to their ceasefire with Israel. Mr. Sarsak’s death would link Palestinians’ passion for soccer to the deep-seated emotions that the fate of prisoners evokes among Palestinians who virtually all know someone who has spent time in an Israeli jail. Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the mass hunger strike that ended on May 14 to demonstrate solidarity with the inmates.

“If you degrade the national team you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation,” pro-Palestinian United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights Richard Falk quoted Palestinian Olympic soccer team goalkeeper Omar Abu Rwayyes as saying.

Israeli security forces arrested Mr. Abu Rwayyes, an alleged member of Hamas, in February on charges of involvement in a shoot-out with Israeli troops. A second soccer player, Ahmad Khalil Ali Abu El-Asal, who plays for the Aqabat Jaber Palestinian refugee camp soccer team, was arrested a day later. The Israeli military said the two men were among 13 people arrested following an attack on Israeli troops in January in the Al Amari Palestinian refugee camp near the West Bank town of Ramallah. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) has called on FIFA to intervene on the players’ behalf.

Mr. Sarsak was detained in 2009 at an Israeli checkpoint as he was leaving his native Gaza to join the Palestinian national squad on the West Bank. He has been held since then as an illegal combatant without charge or trial. He went on hunger strike on March 19 to demand fair treatment.

Human rights groups who recently visited Mr. Sarsak in prison as well as the player’s father warn that he has lost his sight and hearing as a result of the hunger strike and that he is in a critical condition. In a statement, the groups – Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and Al-Haq – said that Israel was refusing to allow independent doctors to visit Messrs. Sarsak and Al-Rekhawi in violation of an Israeli court order and had failed to transfer them to civilian hospitals.

The statement said that Mr. Sarsak’s health had allowed him only to speak for a few minutes with an Addameer lawyer who visited him on May. 23

Speaking in a BBC interview, Mr. Sarsak’s father charged that his son’s detention was designed to destroy Palestinian soccer.

In a letter to world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter copied to Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Zhang Jilong and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacque Rogue, Palestine Football Association (PFA) president Jibril Rajoub, a former Palestinian security chief, described the arrests of Messrs. Abu Rwayyes and Abu El-Esal as “another Israeli transgression against Palestinian players.”

PFA officials have however failed in the past to respond to questions about the background and political affiliations and activities of detained players.

“Mahmoud hasn’t done anything. He's not with one side or the other. Mahmoud is simply a top footballer," Mr. Sarsak’s father said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a consultant to geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat. 


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