Special Report | Mahmoud Sarsak and the silence of the Palestine Football Association

On Monday, after an international outcry, Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak ended his 92-day hunger strike, launched in protest against his three-year detention without charge by Israel. Linah Alsaafin reports for Ceasefire from Ramallah on the background and repercussions of the case, notably the surprising silence of the Palestinian Football Association.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Thursday, June 21, 2012 0:00 - 1 Comment

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“…mainstream international media has relied on suicide bombs and failed rockets to tell the Palestinian story, while mostly ignoring the continued Israeli arbitrary occupation policies and routines of humiliation that that take place on a daily basis.”

Ramallah, Palestine -Twenty-five year old Mahmoud Sarsak was kidnapped in July 2009 as he was crossing the Erez checkpoint set up on the outskirts of Gaza to join the rest of his football team in the West Bank. Held under the Israeli Unlawful Combatant Law for the almost three years – without charge – or trial, his incarceration was subjected to indefinite renewal.

On 19 March 2012 he began his three month long hunger strike.

On Monday June 18 – exactly 92 days after embarking on his fast – Sarsak ended his hunger strike in return for an early release and medical treatment in a civilian hospital. While his detention since 2009 drew little international attention, Sarsak’s decision to protest by embarking on a prolonged hunger strike finally drew the ire of the international footballing community when it became public knowledge that the once star player and the youngest to have made it into the Palestinian national team, had lost 33 per cent of his body mass and was said to have been be suffering from spells of unconsciousness and severe muscle atrophy.

Then the condemnations and appeals started flowing in.

In early June, FIFAPro, a body representing 50,000 professional footballers called on Israel to immediately release Sarsak, with Fifa president Joseph Blatter also voicing his concern and urging the Israeli Football Association to pressure the government of Israel to release Sarsak. Statements of support also arrived from players via Sevilla’s Freddy Kanoute, and Manchester United legend Eric Cantona.

That the international footballing community had to wait for Sarsak, a national footballer, to sacrifice a third of his body mass before they raised questions with Israeli authorities questions is problematic in itself, but understanding the Palestinian Football Association‘s (PFA) silence over Sarsak during his incarceration is even harder to comprehend.

Speaking from Gaza’s southern town of Rafah, Mahmoud Sarsak’s brother Emad Sarsak expressed his frustration that the PFA acted too slowly to the crisis and described Jibril Rjoub, the president of the PFA as “an indolent man”.

“Since the illegal arrest of Mahmoud, [Jibril ] Rjoub as head of the Palestine Football Association was expected to reach out to the international media immediately and use that as a platform to expose Israel’s crimes. Three years of unlawful detention is simply injustice. Why was Rjoub silent this whole time?”

Emad Sarsak said that the family had appealed to the Rafah football club, which Mahmoud grew under its tutelage as a teenager, to push through the bureaucratic levels and adjure Rjoub to take this matter up personally since the very first day of Mahmoud’s arrest.

But to no avail – no help was forthcoming.

Mahmoud himself appealed to Rjoub in 2010 just before the PFA’s meeting with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, on September 20 of the same year to intervene with the Israeli government to protect athletes and to ensure freedom of movement to them.

It is a charge that the PFA vehemently denies.

An unnamed media official at PFA told Ceasefire “a quick Google search will turn up a lot of information on this case … the PFA must have issued at least 60 statements since Mahmoud Sarsak’s arrest in 2009,” but the PFA’s online archives themselves have no records of any such statements.

And it is not the first time the PFA failed to highlight their plight following the loss of their footballers to Israeli aggression.

During Israel’s offensive of the Gaza Strip, known as ‘Operation Cast Lead’, in the winter of 2008, which left over 1,400 Palestinians killed and thousands more injured, three football players from the Palestine national team – Ayman AlKurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Moshtaha – lost their lives.

At the time, the chairman and members of the Board of Directors from the PFA issued a ‘telegram of condolences’ but had typically failed to take the tragedy international by using it as a platform to draw attention to the apartheid policies and gross human rights violations that Israel practices routinely against the Palestinian people.

At the same time, FIFA president Sepp Blatter wrote a bland message of condolence to Jibril Rjoub regarding the murders of AlKurd, Sbakhe, and Moshtaha, without condemning Israel or even linking the three players’ murders to Operation Cast Lead.

(Photo: Ahmad Nimer)

A complex approach

But Ayat Saafeen, head of the recently formed Palestinian Women Football Association, said that the matter is not as simple as the PFA refusing to respond proactively. She says that it was a matter of timing and international support.

Saafeen admitted that “support had been slow on the uptake”, but claimed that the PFA had been waiting for a build up of international solidarity in order to act. “No one [has been] silent, but at the same time we didn’t have anything [about his case] to help going about securing his release,” Saafeen argued.

“Three years ago, there was nothing palpable that would have served Sarsak favorably. He was just another Palestinian prisoner out of the hundreds held without charge or trial by Israel. His hunger strike was the instrument that distinguishes his detainment from others.”

Notably, following FifaPro’s statement on June 12, the PFA organized a co-operation with the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club and the Ministry of Prisoners in a show of solidarity with Sarsak on June 13.

A question of coverage

The PFA’s impotent stance notwithstanding, others claim that the problem lies with the latent failure of both the international and local Palestinian media in highlighting a range of issues that lack the usual imagery of blood and gore.

It is a noted fact that mainstream international media has relied on suicide bombs and failed rockets to tell the Palestinian story, while mostly ignoring the continued Israeli arbitrary occupation policies and routines of humiliation that that take place on a daily basis.

For instance, the recent mass hunger strike undertaken by approximately 2000 Palestinian prisoners went largely overlooked by the mainstream media, while the weekly unarmed protests that take place in a number of West Bank villages remain mostly invisible

Local Palestinian media has not fared so well either. Considering that an independent news outlet is still a rarity in Palestine – with the alternative being owned by political parties or wealthy individuals with political affiliations – the fact that the footballer Sarsak did not belong to a political faction (and not to Islamic Jihad as Israeli authorities have claimed but cannot prove) effectively explains the half-hearted coverage of his hunger strike on the domestic media circuit.

The PFA’s inability to act without adequate international support and local and international media coverage is a point corroborated by Aziz Kahlol, head of the public relations office for the Gaza based football website, AtlasSports.

Kahlol says that the PFA might not have responded appropriately but says a critique would be incomplete without including the failure of the media.

“The management of media [in the West Bank] has neglected in its coverage of Mahmoud Sarsak…there have been sessions undertaken by the PFA regarding his case, but there has been no media reporting on that.

“Mahmoud Sarsak’s arrest is not a sports-related concern; it is a Palestinian related one as there are thousands of Palestinian prisoners. That being said, the PFA failed to frame his case in the way it should have, considering he is a national football player,” Kahlol said.

Lacking sporting impetus

Saafeen says that the problem stems from the representation of the conflict.

“We (Palestinian society) don’t have a sports culture,” Saafeen explained, “and that’s why there has been no campaign to raise awareness. We don’t have an organized group of fans or Ultras. But now as a result of the latest international pressure, we have an advantage in our possession to highlight not just Sarsak’s hunger strike but also to illustrate Israel’s occupation of Palestinians and its human rights violations.”

Saafeen alludes to referring to Jibril Rjoub’s recent letter to UEFA president Michel Platini, in which Rjoub requested that Israel be stripped from the right of hosting a football tournament in 2013.

“We ask, your excellency, to not give Israel the honour to host the next Uefa Under-21 Championship. We are deeply concerned about the situation of our footballers.”

But Sarsak’s brother says that the PFA’s move to pressure Fifa to strip Israel was embarrassingly late. His brother might have been saved, but has little faith in the PFA’s inability to act in future cases.

“Why wasn’t it issued in the first month of his hunger strike?”

“For the next hunger striking prisoner, football player or not,” Emad says, “I hope the immense support for him or her will be there from the very first day, and not after two or three months.”

See also: Comment | Richard Falk: Palestine’s hunger strikers have created a Gandhian moment

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Linah Alsaafin

Linah Alsaafin is the editor of Palestine Monitor, writer for Electronic Intifada, and a journalist based in the West Bank, Occupied Palestine.

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LIVE BLOG ▶ WE DEMAND ISRAEL TO RELEASE SARSAK, RIKAWI & #PALHUNGER STRIKERS! | Occupied Palestine | فلسطين
Jun 24, 2012 13:49

[…] June 22, 2012 | Mahmoud Sarsak and the silence of the Palestine Football Association | Ceasefire […]

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