By Karin Friedemann, TMO
â€œI thank God and all the athletes in the world,â€ Mahmoud Sarsak told a Maâ€™an reporter as he was transferred to Shifa hospital in Gaza City for medical attention after being released in a â€œrapturous welcomeâ€ to relatives who were gathered in great celebration at the Palestinian side of the Israeli Erez crossing in northern Gaza on Tuesday. ESPN reports that â€œIslamic militantsâ€ fired rifles in the air in a rousing homecoming for a beloved member of the Palestinian national soccer team who was released by Israel after being held for three years in prison without charge, trial, or contact with his family.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, American author Alice Walker and others had chimed in to support his release. Sarsak, the jailed Gazan soccer star, freed on July 10, 2012 due to massive international attention, had been detained on his way to a national team match on the West Bank in 2009. While participating in a hunger strike by 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, Sarkar lost almost half of his body weight.
Shuaib Ahmed commented in the Morning Bark that â€œthe world remains, as it always has been â€“ hesitatingly observant.â€
The Palestinian plight was brought to world attention by the campaign to free Sarsak. Palestinian National Team players are often blocked at checkpoints, jailed, or even killed. Sarkarâ€™s arrest was part of a broader effort to degrade his â€œnational team without a nation.â€
British comedian Mark Steel joked in the UKâ€™s Independent that the Palestinians â€œwere employing that old terrorist tactic of becoming the national football team, then qualifying for the World Cup finals from where itâ€™s a simple step to start an insurrection.â€
Energetic protesters in the stands in Scotland added to the 8-0 humiliation of the Israeli national womenâ€™s team in a European championship match on June 17. The Israeli national anthem was also booed before kick-off. In Wales, Israel lost 5-0, and in France, protesters actually invaded the pitch to pressure Israel regarding Sarkarâ€™s life.
An Israeli Embassy functionary responded that Sarsak was a terrorist and that calling him a â€œyoung Palestinian footballerâ€ was â€œinsulting to footballers.â€
FIFPro, the international federation of professional footballers, stated that no other Palestinian footballers should have to go through what Sarsak has experienced. Yet there are two other Palestinian football stars held in indefinite detention, prevented from playing for Palestine.
President of the Palestinian Football Association, Jabril Rajoub, asked UEFA president Michel Platini to remember Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Mohammed Nimr, detained without charge by Israel.
â€œFor athletes in Palestine, there is no real freedom of movement and the risks of being detained or even killed are always looming before their eyes.â€ Since Israel is in â€œdirect violation of FIFA regulations and the International Olympic Charter,â€ Rajoub implored, â€œwe ask Your Excellency to not give Israel the honour to host the next UEFA Under-21 Championship 2013.â€
A similar plea was sent by 42 Palestinian football clubs based in Gaza, home to many of the worldâ€™s best football players.
Platini continues to ignore requests from concerned citizens, stating, â€œWe cannot hold the Israeli Football Association responsible for the political situation in the region or for legal procedures in place in its country.â€
What I want to understand is, if you knew that your country imprisoned a fellow athlete, how could you play for your country? I mean, given the obviousness of the treachery your playing would imply. How could any Israeli footballer, in good conscience, agree to play under these circumstances? And if you were an Israeli that chose to play, how should we look at you? Should we applaud your gains and cry for your losses, knowing that you didnâ€™t care about simple obvious human rights issues regarding fellow players living close to you? Why are the Israeli teams not refusing to play another game? I would, if I were them.
For an explanation, let us look at the recent past.
In June, 2012, 12 year old Gazan Mamoun Hassouna was killed while playing football.
In 2011 Palestinian players flying in from a game in Thailand were prevented entry into the West Bank. Mohammed Samara and right back Majed Abusidu therefore missed the return game at home five days later.
In 2010, Gaza and West Bank winners had to postpone their cup final because the Gazan team was refused permission to travel. Also that year, Israel refused to allow six members of the Palestinian national team to travel from Gaza to Jordan for a match against Mauritania.
Ahmed Keshkesh was prevented from returning home for months.
During Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-9, Israel was responsible for leveling much of Gaza including the Rafah National Stadium, and killing football players Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate, as well as over 1400 other citizens.
In May 2008, the national team was not able to attend the AFC Challenge Cup, denying them qualification for the 2011 Asia Cup.
In 2006, Israeli missiles destroyed Gazaâ€™s only football stadium.
Palestine had reached the top of their group in the qualifying rounds for the 2006 World Cup. They failed to qualify after the Israeli authorities refused permission for five key players to travel to a match against Uzbekistan in Qatar on September 7, 2005.
In 2005, while playing football, Ashraf Samir Ahmad Mussa and Khaled Fuad Sahker Ghanam, and Hassan Ahmad Khalil Abu Zeid, were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
There are countless other such incidents. None of that is really news, just banality of evil. What is news is that international pressure freed one Palestinian prisoner. Dave Zirin reports in the Nation: â€œNot only does Sarsak live but the movement lives as well. Itâ€™s been strengthened by Sarsakâ€™s survival and the revelation for many that the thankless, frustrating and often devastating work of international solidarity with political prisoners can actually work.â€