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Mahmoud al-Sarsak

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Palestinian hunger strike footballer 'at risk of death'





Human rights groups have warned that a Palestinian footballer who has been on hunger strike for 80 days in an Israeli prison faces imminent danger of death.


Mahmoud al-Sarsak, who was once a star player in the Palestinian national team, was arrested as he left the Gaza Strip en route to a match in 2009.


Mr Sarsak has since been held without trial or charge.


He is one of a handful of Palestinian prisoners who have rejected a deal that ended a mass hunger strike on 14 May.


Under the deal, Israel agreed to end solitary confinement for 19 prisoners - held in isolation for up to 10 years - and lifted a ban on family visits for prisoners from Gaza.


Mr Sarsak has not eaten solid food since mid-March. Although he has taken fluids and some vitamin supplements, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said on Wednesday that he could die at any time.


"Despite the urgency of his condition, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) has denied Mahmoud access to independent doctors from PHR-Israel until today," a statement said.


"The IPS also refuses to transfer him to a civilian hospital for proper treatment."


PHR-Israel said Mr Sarsak had lost 33% of his body weight, and suffers from frequent incidents of fainting and loss of consciousness, in addition to lapses in memory.


An Israeli government official told the BBC Israel "does not wish to see any prisoners have their health put at risk. This is precisely why we made huge efforts to end the recent strike, with the co-operation in terms agreed with the prisoners themselves, the Palestinian Authority and other organisations.


"Sadly, Sarsak chose to exclude himself from this agreement, preferring to put his own life at risk. We are providing him with all required medical treatment, but hope he will join his fellow prisoners and end his strike."


The 25-year-old footballer was once regarded as a star player in the Palestine national side.


For three years he has been held under Israel's so-called "Unlawful Combatants Law", which allows for Palestinians from Gaza to be detained for an unlimited time without charge or trial.

Amnesty International issued a new report strongly condemning administrative detention.



Israel says many of the Palestinian prisoners are suspected of being members of militant groups

The human rights group said administrative detainees had been "subjected to violations such as the use of torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation, as well as cruel and degrading treatment during their detention, sometimes as punishment for hunger strikes or other protests".


Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said administrative detention was only used as a last resort, and to help avoid retribution.


"If we get information from someone whose neighbour is making explosives for suicide bombers and that evidence is presented in court, then terror groups will take violent action against him and his family," Mr Regev said, quoted by the Associated Press news agency.


"Administrative detention is specifically allowed under international law, and it is factually incorrect to say otherwise," he said.


As of the end of April there were at least 308 Palestinian administrative detainees, among them 24 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Amnesty said.


Israel says that many of 4,500 Palestinian prisoners in its jails are suspected of being members of Palestinian militant groups









Al-Sarsak, who has been a witness to many tragedies, is now becoming one.


The 25-year old had once hoped to push the ranking of his national team back to a reasonable standing. If Palestinians ever deserve to be called ‘fanatics’, it would be in reference to soccer.


As a child growing up in Gaza, I remember playing soccer in few minute increments, braving Israeli military curfews, risking arrests, injury and even death. Somehow, in a very crowded refugee camp, soccer becomes tantamount to freedom.


Palestine's soccer ranking at 164th in the world is testament not to any lack of passion for the game, but to the constant Israeli attempts at destroying even that national aspiration.


The examples of Israeli war on Palestinian soccer are too many to count, although most of them receive little or no media coverage whatsoever.


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


The obstacles culminated in the March 2006 bombing of the Palestinian Football Stadium in Gaza, which reduced the grass field to a massive crater. Then, in the 2008 war on Gaza, things turned bloody as Israel killed three national soccer players: Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe. It also bombed their stadium again.


Al-Sarsak was a promising new face of Palestinian soccer. In times of Palestinian disunity and factionalism, it was the national team that kept a symbolic unity between Gaza and the West Bank – and indeed Palestinians everywhere.


These young men exemplify hope that better times are ahead. But Sarsak’s star is now fading, as is his life. His mother, who hasn’t seen him since his arrest, told Ma'an that she thinks of him every minute of each day. "Why is there no one moving to save his life?" she asked.


Writing in the Nation on May 10, Dave Zirin wrote, "Imagine if a member of Team USA Basketball—let’s say Kobe Bryant—had been traveling 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 for which he was imprisoned ... Chances are all the powerful international sports organizations—the IOC, FIFA—would treat the jailing nation as a pariah until Kobe was free. And chances are that even Laker-haters would wear buttons that read, ‘Free Kobe.'"


Al-Sarsak is the Bryant of his people. But ask any political commentator and he will tell you why Mahmoud al-Sarsak is not Kobe Bryant, and why al-Rekhawi is not Chen. It is the same prevalent logic of a powerful Washington-based pro-Israel lobby and all the rest.


Even if the logic was founded, why are international sports institutions not standing in complete solidarity with the dying al-Sarsak? Why don't soccer matches include a moment of solidarity with killed Palestinian players, and the dying young man aching to join his teammates on the field once more?


Why is Israel not fully and comprehensively boycotted by every international sports organization?


"As long as al-Sarsak remains indefinitely detained and as long as Israel targets sport and athletes as legitimate targets of war, they have no business being rewarded by FIFA or the UEFA, let alone even being a part of the community of international sports," wrote Zirin.


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

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