Mahmoud Sarsak, Palestinian footballer, former political detainee and hunger striker spoke to Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of the Mahmoud Sarsak 2013 UK tour support group.
Sarsak explains how he has come to regard football both as a means for bringing human beings together and as a weapon of resistance against the injustice faced by Palestinians and by political prisoners everywhere.
Mahmoud Sarsak's playing career began at the age of seven when he was picked to play for a football school team in his native Rafah, Gaza.
At the age of 13 he joined other young players from Gaza and the Occupied West Bank in the national Palestinian youth team. In 1998 they travelled to Tehran for the qualifying rounds of the West Asian Youth Championship. He captained the side and scored six goals in four games.
On return to Gaza, although only 14 years old, he was promoted to the first team representing the Rafah football school.
In the following year he played for the Palestinian youth team in the Arab championships in Jericho, in the Al-Quds championship in Iraq and in competition in Jordan.
In 2002 Sarsak was called up to join the Palestinian under 17s. He captained the squad in tournaments in Norway in 2003, when he was top scorer, and in 2004 when he was judged Man of the Match in all four games played.
Up to this point he had been primarily a striker, but his role changed to playmaker in midfield when he joined the under-21 Olympic team. He travelled with the squad to Qatar for the Asian Games in 2006 but was unable to play due to injury.
Sarsak was then promoted to the Palestinian National Team. As part of the squad between 2006 and 2009, he missed World Cup and Olympic qualifying games in Yemen, Syria and Japan because the Israeli authorities refused him permission to leave Gaza.
At this time the territory was in turmoil, with conflict between factions following the election success of Hamas and the imposition of sanctions by the US and Europe. As siege conditions worsened, league football in Gaza ceased to operate and those Gazan footballers who could do so moved to clubs in the West Bank.
In 2009 the Palestinian Football Association arranged for Sarsak to join the Nablus side Balata, in the top division of the national league. He was at last granted a permit to leave Gaza for the Occupied West Bank. It was at this key moment in his professional footballing career, as he waited to cross the border in July 2009 to take up a new role at top level in the sport, that he was detained by the Israeli security services.
“When this happened to me it was a huge shock,” Sarsak said. “At first I thought it was a mistake, that they would soon let me out, as I had no idea why they had stopped me.”
What followed was several weeks of interrogation that he understood was intended to force him to confess to membership of the radical group Islamic Jihad. Despite being denied access to family or legal support and being subjected to freezing conditions, sleep deprivation and other forms of torture, he continued to deny membership of any such organisation. He was held for three years without trial under Israel's “Unlawful Combatant's Law”. Similar to the regulations used by the US authorities to hold detainees without legal process in Guantanamo Bay, this law is widely regarded as itself unlawful.
“Every six months they would haul me up before a panel who would take less than two minutes to decide, without any evidence, that I was a threat to Israeli security and had to stay in jail for another six months,” Sarsak said.
“Prison was a grave for the living, so I decided to risk death on hunger strike to try and win my freedom.”
Throughout 96 days refusing solid food, through April, May and June of 2012, he was in solitary confinement and had no idea of the campaign of support that was building for him in the outside world.
It was pressure from activists lobbying government ministers, holding street demonstrations, gathering endorsements for letters and petitions from footballing organisations and from high profile figures such as filmmaker Ken Loach and former footballer Eric Cantona, that led to football leaders in Europe and internationally, Michel Platini of UEFA and Sepp Blatter of FIFA, to call for his release.
FIFA, UEFA, the world's players union FIFPro, high-profile players such as Freddie Kanoute, Abou Diaby and former French centre-half Lilian Thuram, have all had their say on his case, but their combined efforts were unable to prevent a promising footballer being incarcerated for the best years of his career.
It was then that the Israeli authorities conceded defeat and announced that Sarsak would be allowed to go home to Gaza on July 10.
“When I was let out of solitary and re-joined other prisoners, they showed me media reports about all the fantastic support from people abroad. It was the first I knew about it,” he said.
As a typical football-crazy youngster in Gaza, Sarsak had read newspapers and been aware of the political situation, but it had never been a passionate interest of his. In jail, however, he studied social science, read widely – “everything from Dan Brown to Paolo Coelho to Arabic classics to Russian novels” – and took part in political discussions.
Now Sarsak says he aims to devote his life to promoting the rights of political prisoners in Israel, in Gaza and in the Palestinian authority, as part of an international movement for prisoners' rights. Sport will be his particular tool for resisting injustice, he said.
“Freedom of expression, through football or any other means, is not to be denied by gagging or imprisonment,” he said.
Mahmoud Sarsak 2013 UK tour support group interview