Hunger-striking player finally freed

Hunger-striking player finally freed

GAZA CITY - The Associated Press
Hunger-striking player finally freed

Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak is greeted upon his arrival in Gaza City. Israel released the Palestinian player in a deal to end his intermittent hunger strike.AA photo

Dozens of Islamic militants fired rifles in the air yesterday in a homecoming celebration for a member of the Palestinian national football team who was released by Israel after being held for three years without formal charges.

The player, Mahmoud Sarsak, 25, had staged a hunger strike for more than 90 days to press for his release, winning support from international sports organizations.

Israel accused Sarsak of being active in the violent Islamic Jihad group, a charge he denied while in custody.

However, senior Islamic Jihad officials were present during a welcoming ceremony for him in Gaza City on Tuesday, and one of the group’s leaders, Nafez Azzam, praised the player as “one of our noble members.”

Later yesterday, as Sarsak approached his family home in the Rafah refugee camp, dozens of Islamic Jihad gunmen fired in the air from SUVs and motorcycles. After he emerged from his car, Sarsak was hoisted on shoulders, then kissed and hugged by friends and family.

During the hunger strike, Sarsak had lost nearly half his weight. He was released yesterday from an Israeli prison hospital, said Prison Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman.

Sarsak was arrested in July 2009 at a crossing between his native Gaza and Israel on his way to the West Bank for a match. Israel’s Shin Bet security service alleged that Sarsak once planted a bomb that injured an Israeli soldier but said it did not have sufficient evidence for a trial. As a result, Sarsak was held without charges.

In March, he launched a hunger strike to press for his release. He ended the fast in mid-June after winning assurances that he would be freed.

As Sarsak’s condition deteriorated, FIFA’s president asked Israel’s football federation to intercede on the player’s behalf with the Israeli authorities. FIFPro, an international organization of professional players, called for his release. Former footballer Eric Cantona, filmmaker Ken Loach and others signed a petition calling for freedom for the player.