Football player’s hunger strike threatens Israeli-Palestinian deal
JAMES M. DORSEY
Protestors bang on pots covered in pictures of Palestinian prisoners Mahmoud Sarsak (L) and Akram al-Rikhawi (R) during a demonstration in in their support in Ramallah. AFP PhotoA Palestinian football player on day 75 of his prison hunger strike threaten to unhinge a two-week old Palestinian-Israeli deal to improve conditions for Palestinian prisoners and adds to the challenges of 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 football team, together with Akram al-Rekhawi an imprisoned diabetic, refused to join hundreds of prisoners in ending their hunger strike May 14 because they were not included in an Egyptian-mediated deal. Human rights groups said Israeli officials had promised to release 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.
As part of the deal Israel agreed 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.
Sarsak’s continued hunger strike and reports that his health is rapidly deteriorating focuses public attention on the plight of several imprisoned Palestinian football players and threatens to dash Israeli efforts to prevent a potentially explosive situation sparked by Palestinians dying while in Israeli custody.
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. Abbas has refused to restart peace talks with Israel as long as it rejects a halt to its settlement activity. Hamas has long been calling for a long-term ceasefire, while Israel has effectively blocked 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 Sarsak’s deteriorating health in the clinic of Ramle prison wasn’t enough of a threat to the Israeli-Hamas understanding, which 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 Defense Minister Ehud Barak has potentially thrown in a monkey wrench of his own. 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 in a move that would amount to Israel determining the borders between Israel and Palestine.
Sarsak’s death in a nation passionate about football 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. Sarsak’s death would link Palestinians’ passion for football 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 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 reporter on Palestinian human rights Richard Falk quoted Palestinian Olympic football team goalkeeper Omar Abu Rwayyes as saying.
Israeli security forces arrested Abu Rwayyes, an alleged member of Hamas, in February on charges of involvement in a shoot-out with Israeli troops. A second football player, Ahmad Khalil Ali Abu El-Asal, who plays for the Aqabat Jaber Palestinian refugee camp football 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.
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 a hunger strike on March 19 to demand fair treatment.
Human rights groups who recently visited 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, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and Al-Haq said that Israel was refusing to allow independent doctors to visit Sarsak and Al-Rekhawi in violation of an Israeli court order and had failed to transfer them to civilian hospitals.
The statement said that 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, Sarsak’s father charged that his son’s detention was designed to destroy Palestinian football.
In a letter to world football body FIFA President Sepp Blatter and 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 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,” Sarsak’s father said.