Mahmoud Sarsak – Palestinian footballer campaigns against Israel hosting European U-21 championships – video
Mahmoud Sarsak, who is a midfielder for the Palestinian National team and was imprisoned for three years by the Israeli occupation forces, is touring Europe this summer to campaign for Israel to be stripped of the right to host the UEFA football tournaments.
Mahmoud Sarsak, who is a midfielder for the Palestinian National team, talks about the torture he received during his three-year imprisonment by the Israeli occupation forces. Translated by Musheir El-Farra.
Filmed by Joe Bream and directed, edited and interview by Marishka Van Steenbergen
Invited by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign group, Sarsak is meeting with footballers, members of parliament, student and faith communities and members of anti-racist and human rights organisations to highlight the experience of Palestinian prisoners and civilians.
He is calling for action to campaign against the men’s under-21 European Championships and the women’s under-19 European Championships from taking place in Israel in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
As part of his tour Sarsak visited Football Unites Racism Divides at the UMIX centre in Sheffield on 29 May to talk to the asylum seekers and refugees who meet to play football as part of the Belonging project.
Sarsak, 26, played football with the asylum seekers and refugees, the second time he has played the game since his release in July 2012 and then spoke about his treatment by the Israelis.
A dream destroyed
At the age of 22 Sarsak was offered the opportunity to play with the Merkaz Balata football club in the West Bank Premier League. In July 2009, on his way to a national contest, Sarsak was arrested at the border checkpoint between Gaza and the West Bank.
“It was a dream and I was so excited because playing for the Balata football club means playing for a stronger league because of the facilities in the West Bank, unfortunately this dream was destroyed by what I call the executers at the Beit Hanoun air raids at the border crossing.”
Sarsak was taken to Ashkelon prison and interrogated, however he said that after 45 days of psychological and physical torture the Israelis could not charge him of anything he was accused of. However the Israeli’s used a system of administrative detention in order to imprison Sarsak for three years without trial, despite having no evidence that he was active in Islamic Jihad, a claim he denied.
‘Killing’ Palestinian ambition and culture
During his imprisonment Sarsak was put in solitary confinement for eighteen months. Sarsak believes this is a new form of Israeli policy:
“As well as killing the Palestinian’s physically they are now trying to kill their ambition and especially among young people and sports people. What happened to me, happened to hundreds of Palestinian sports people, especially members of the Olympic team.
“This is as well as physically killing sports people, the latest statistic which came out a year ago, states that since 1967, 550 members of the sports community in Palestine have been killed by the Israeli army.”
Sarsak mentioned the pain of watching one of his colleagues die in his own cell after he fell ill with severe cancer and wasn’t given the medical treatment he needed.
“This proves that the Palestinian sports person doesn’t have any protection or the minimum protection guaranteed by UEFA, FIFA and other sports organisations. That is why I decided that either it would be my freedom or my life, as I had no legal representation throughout this period.”
On hunger strike for 92 days
Whilst Sarsak was in jail he heard about the bombing of the Rafah National Stadium and about the death of Palestinian football players and over 1,400 Palestinians during Israel’s 2008-2009 onslaught on Gaza.
“I decided I wanted to highlight and bring the worlds attention to the plight of the sports people and the suffering of Palestinians in general, that is why I started my hunger strike on 15 March 2012.”
Sarsak said that during his hunger strike for over three months, he lost the ability to see for a period and he was in a coma for four days, he said he could not move his body or feel anything.
After 92 days on hunger strike Sarsak’s plight drew the support of footballing organisations such as the international footballers’ federation FIFPro, former French international and Manchester United star Eric Cantona, former West Ham and Tottenham star Frederic Kanoute, FIFA President Sepp Blatter and other notable public figures. Sarsak was released on 10 July 2012.
Sarsak, a university student, now lives in Rafah with his family at the southern part of the Gaza strip. He is determined to highlight the plight of his people to Europe and the world.
He claims that Israel does not behave like a normal state where citizens can play freely and it should not therefore be granted the honour of hosting the UEFA football tournaments.
“UEFA president Michel Platini has cruelly stated that the 2013 tournament will ‘be a beautiful celebration of football that, once again, will bring people together.’ But by allowing Israel to host it, UEFA is legitimising Israel’s continued occupation, oppression and apartheid policies. There can be no place in football for segregation and oppression so prestigious tournaments cannot be allowed to take place in Israel.
“I call on all those who spoke out for my release and the release of the Palestinian hunger strikers, to once again show their commitment to justice and equality by insisting that UEFA move their competitions away from Israel.”