Militants play soccer in support of hunger striking Palestinian player

Palestinian militants play soccer for hunger striking player (Source: 

By James M. Dorsey

Palestinian militants of Islamic Jihad played a soccer match this weekend on a street in front of the Gaza offices of the Red Cross to demand the release of hunger striking Palestinian player Mahmoud Sarsak from Israeli prison.

Mr. Sarsak was detained in 2009 as an “unlawful combatant” and has been held since without being charged. Israel has so far declined to say why Mr. Sarsak was detained at a military checkpoint as he was travelling from Gaza to the West Bank to join the Palestinian national soccer team.

By organizing the soccer match, Islamic Jihad has reinforced suspicions that Mr. Sarsak is suspected of being a member of the group, a militant offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Sarsak’s father has denied that his son was politically active. Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erakat said last week on the side line of a World Economic Forum gathering in Istanbul that he has so far been unable in recent secret talks with Israel intended to kick start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process  to ascertain why Mr. Sarsak is being held.

A 25-year old soccer player from the Gaza city of Refah, Mr. Sarsak has been on hunger strike for the past 84 days together with Akram al-Rekhawi, an imprisoned diabetic, and Samer al-Barq. The two men 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

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. Israel agreed as part of the Egyptian negotiated 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 Hamas and Islamic Jihad pledged in exchange to halt all attacks on Israel.

Mr. Sarsak’s continued hunger strike amid reports that his deteriorating health has made him blind 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.

His protest puts a dent in an evolving tacit understanding between Israel and Hamas, the major 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.

Messrs. Sarsak and Al-Rekhawi decried in a letter published last week by Palestinian prisoner support group Addameer the lack of public support for their hunger strike. "There is still enough time, and the support that comes late is better than that which does not come at all. It is better that you receive us alive and victorious rather than as lifeless bodies in black bags. Our people, our leaders in Gaza, in the West Bank and outside, and freedom loving people of the world, we cry out to you, and to all people in the world who believe in the justice of our cause: do not abandon us to the vindictive hands of the jailers to take what they want from our frail bodies," the letter said.

Islamic Jihad’s armed wing claimed responsibility for a foiled attack on Israel last week in which an Israeli soldier and militant were killed. The group’s Saraya al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigades) said in a leaflet that one of its fighters, Ahmed Abu Nasser, was killed as he tried to cross into Israel from Gaza to kidnap Israeli soldiers. The group wanted to exchange the soldiers for Messrs. Sarsak, Al-Rekhawi and Al-Barq.

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.

Israel returned late last month the remains of 91 Palestinian members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, most of them killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis, in a move described by Israeli officials as a gesture intended to help bring the Palestinians back to peace negotiations.

An Israeli human rights group, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel (PHRI), said last week in a statement following a visit to Mr. Sarsak by one of its doctors that the soccer player was suffering from “extreme loss of muscle tissue and drastic weight loss. He has lost 33 per cent of his body weight, from an original weight of 76 kilos down to his present weight of 51 kilos. He also suffers from frequent incidents of fainting and loss of consciousness, in addition to lapses in memory” and that he was “in danger of pulse disruptions (arrhythmias) that are endangering his life.”

PHRI has demanded that Mr. Sarsak and the two other hunger strikers be moved from a prison clinic to civilian hospitals better equipped to treat them.

Mr. Sarsak is one of three Palestinian soccer players in Israeli detention. In contrast to Mr. Sarsak, Israel has said that it arrested 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, on charges of having been involved in a shoot-out in January with Israeli troops. The Israeli military said the two men were among 13 people arrested following an attack on Israeli troops 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.

“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.

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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