International pressure persuades Israel to release Palestinian player

By James M. Dorsey

Imprisoned Palestinian soccer player Mahmoud Sarsak has ended his 92-day hunger strike as part of an Israeli agreement to move him from a prison clinic to a civilian hospital and release him on July 10. The agreement was reached in what sources close to the deal described as a “tough negotiation” following stepped up pressure on Israel for his release.

It was not immediately clear what lasting damage Mr. Sarsak would suffer as a result of his hunger strike and whether he would eventually be able to play again. Sources close to the effort to achieve his release said they hoped that at the very least Mr. Sarsak would emerge as a symbol who would encourage youth to play soccer and give Palestinian players a sense of hope.

Equally unclear is whether the deal involves only Mr. Sarsak or also two other Palestinian players who were detained earlier this year but had not joined his hunger strike. The two players, in contrast to Mr. Sarsak who was held since 2009 in administrative detention without being charged or put on trial on suspicion of being a member of militant Gaza-based Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, have been accused of involvement in a shootout with Israeli security forces.

A 25-year old soccer player from the Gaza city of Refah, Mr. Sarsak together with Akram al-Rekhawi, an imprisoned diabetic, and Samer al-Barq refused to join hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jail who ended their hunger strike on May 14 in demand of improved prison conditions because they were not included in an Egyptian-mediated deal. It was not clear whether Messrs. Al-Rekhawi and Al-Barq had also ended their hunger strike.

Israel last month agreed to improve conditions for Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the end to the hunger strike a pledge by militant Palestinian groups, including Islamic Jihad, to honor a ceasefire. As part of the Egyptian negotiated deal to more family visits, Israel promised to end solitary confinement and limit a controversial policy that allows it to imprison people for years without charge. Israel had hoped the deal would avert the threat of public protests. Messrs. Sarsak, Al-Rekhawi and Al-Barq dashed that hope with their protest. Israel feared that that Mr. Sarsak’s death in Israeli prison could spark demonstrations on the West Bank and Israel itself.

Ironically, it took reports that Mr. Sarsak’s health had significantly deteriorated to persuade the international soccer community to intervene on his behalf. But once it did despite internal political bickering, the community made clear to Israel that a solution to Mr. Sarsak’s situation needed to be found before it was too late.

FIFA vice president Prince Ali bin Al Hussein first raised Mr. Sarsak’s case on May 14, the day most Palestinian inmates ended their hunger strike, during a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah to attend the Nakba soccer tournament. Pressure on Israel began to pile up early this month with a letter by world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter to the Israeli Football Association (IFA), a statement by professional soccer player organization FIFpro, and private representations by European soccer body UEFA.

Palestinian Football Association head General Jibril Rajoub called in a letter that his aides said had been sent on June 12 to UEFA president Michel Patini for stripping Israel of the right to host the Euro 2013 Under-21 championship. It was not clear whether the letter had been received by Mr. Platini and whether the threat of losing the championship played a role in Israel’s decision to compromise.

The effort to achieve a solution involved various segments of the soccer community with Israel belonging to UEFA while Palestine is a member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as well as the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.  “There was a big of finger pointing about who said what, but at the end everybody was talking about the issue and working to resolve it,” said a soccer executive close to the efforts to get Mr. Sarsak released who requested anonymity.

Middle Eastern soccer executives said it remained to be seen whether the international focus on Mr. Sarasak’s case would prove to be an isolated incident or whether it would increase attention for the problems of Palestinian players as a result of Israeli security measures. “It is important that elected football officials be true to the issues that affect the game. No doubt, the Sarsak case is only one such issue and most likely there are others not only in our part of the world,” one executive said.

In his June 12 letter to IFA president Avi Luzon, Mr. Blatter expressed concern that Mr. Sarsak and the two other Palestinian players, Olympic soccer team goalkeeper Omar Abu Rwayyes and Ahmad Khalil Ali Abu El-Asal, who plays for the Aqabat Jaber Palestinian refugee camp soccer team, were being “illegally” detained “in apparent violation of their integrity and human rights and without the apparent right of due process (trial).”

He called on the IFA “to act with the utmost urgency” given “the graveness of the … situation” to “draw the attention of the competent Israeli authorities to the present matter with the aim of ensuring the physical integrity of the concerned players as well as their right for due process.”

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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