June 11, 2012

Israel's war on footballers

Palestinians in Nablus play football handcuffed in solidarity
with Sarsak, whose picture is emblazoned on their t-shirts

On June 3 Palestinian national football team member Mahmoud Sarsak completed 80 days of a gruelling hunger strike.

He has sustained his protest even though nearly 2,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails called off their 28-day hunger strike weeks ago.

Palestinian prisoners in Israel face a common reality of unlawful detention and widespread mistreatment.

But Sarsak's fate can be viewed within its own, unique context.

The football player, who once sought to take the name and flag of his nation to international arenas, was seized by Israeli soldiers in July 2009 while on his way to join the national team in the West Bank.

He was branded an "illegal combatant" by Israel's military-judicial system and was imprisoned without being tried or even charged.

Sarsak is not alone in continuing his hunger strike. Akram al-Rekhawi, a diabetic prisoner demanding proper medical care, has refused food for over 50 days.

Both men are said to be in dire medical condition. Sarsak, once a healthy man of athletic build, is now gaunt beyond recognition. The already ill Rekhawi is dying.

According to rights groups a court ruled on May 30 that prison doctors would continue to monitor the two for another 12 days before independent doctors are allowed to see them. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) continues to petition the courts for a meeting with both men.

PHRI and other civil society organisations are doing what they can given the oppressive legal and political situation. But the world is just looking on in a shocking example of the selective sympathy of Western governments and media.

Think of the uproar recently over the fate of blind Chinese political activist Chen Guangcheng. When he took shelter in the US embassy a diplomatic crisis ensued.

Chen received permission to move to the US on May 19. The New York Post reported on May 31 after a speech he had given in the city: "The blind activist said that his lengthy detention demonstrates that lawlessness is still the norm in China. 'Is there any justice?' Chen asked."

But somehow this logic becomes entirely irrelevant when the perpetrator of injustice is Israel.

Rekhawi is not blind, but he has many medical problems. He has been in Ramle prison clinic since 2004, receiving severely inadequate medical care.

Sarsak, who is just 25, had once hoped to boost the standing of Palestine's football team. If Palestinians ever deserve the term "fanatics" it's only in reference to football. As a child growing up in Gaza I remember playing football in few-minute increments, braving Israeli military curfews, risking arrest, injury and even death. Football in the refugee camps seemed tantamount to freedom.

Palestine's ranking - 164 in the world - is not due to any lack of passion but to constant Israeli attempts to destroy even that national aspiration.

Examples of Israel's war on Palestinian football are too many to count.

In 2004 it blocked several essential players from accompanying the national team out of Gaza for a second match against Chinese Taipei - Palestine had won its first match 8-0.

In March 2006 it bombed the Palestinian Football Stadium in Gaza, reducing the field to a massive crater.

During the Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza in 2008-9 Israel killed three national football players - Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe.

It also bombed the stadium again.

The national football team is symbolic of Palestinian unity despite the many years of factionalism and division between Gaza and the West Bank.

Young men like Sarsak exemplified the hope that better times were ahead.But now his star is fading, as is his life.

His mother, who hasn't seen him since his arrest, told the Ma'an news agency she thinks of him every minute of every day.

"Why is no-one moving to save his life?" she asked.

In the US magazine The Nation Dave Zirin, who comments on the politics of sport, wrote: "Imagine if a member of Team USA Basketball - say, Kobe Bryant - had been travelling to an international tournament only to be seized by a foreign government and held in prison for three years without trial or even hearing the charges.

"Chances are all the powerful international sports organisations - the International Olympic Committee, Fifa - would treat the jailing nation as a pariah until he was free."

So why are international sports institutions not standing in solidarity with Sarsak?

Why don't football matches include a moment of solidarity with killed Palestinian players and the dying young man aching to join his teammates on the field?

Why is Israel not boycotted by every international sports organisation?

It would be a belated step, but an urgent one. For Palestinian sportsmen are literally dying.

Ramzy Baroud is editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story is out now published by Pluto Press. This article has been reprinted from the Morning Star newspaper.

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