After three years of detention without facing any formal charges, after a ninety-day hunger strike that almost claimed his life, and after an international outcry, Palestinian Mahmoud Sarsak was finally released from an Israeli prison on July 10.
But Sarsak was not a typical prisoner amongst the thousands held without charges or hope of trial under Israel’s “unlawful combatant” law. The twenty-five-year-old is a member of the Palestinian national soccer team. When the Israelis nabbed Sarsak, he was en route to a national team game, travel papers in hand. He was stopped at a Gaza Border checkpoint, arrested, and sent to jail.
Sarsak was not the first Palestinian national soccer team member to face harassment, imprisonment, or even death by the Israeli government. During the 2009 bombing of Gaza, amongst the 1,400 civilians killed by Israel were three national team players, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Moshtahe. In that same offensive, the Palestinian National Stadium as well as the offices of the Palestinian Football Association were also targeted and destroyed. In 2012, Israeli police arrested the national team goalie, Omar Abu Rwayyis, on “terrorism charges.”
The Israeli government’s theory seems to be if you degrade the national team, you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation.
But what makes Sarsak’s story so remarkable is that the world of international soccer, hardly the most political of bodies, would not let him be another of the disappeared.
On June 8, FIFpro, the international union of 50,000 professional soccer players who play under the FIFA banner, put out a formal call for his release.
“The freedom of movement is a fundamental right of every citizen,” said FIFpro’s vice president, Philippe Piat. “It is also written down in the FIFA Regulations that players must be allowed to play for the national team of their country. But actually for some footballers it is impossible to defend the colors of their country. They cannot cross the border. They cannot visit their family. They are locked up. This is an injustice.”
In addition, the legendary Manchester United player Eric Cantona signed a statement saying that UEFA, soccer’s ruling European body, should cancel its upcoming under-twenty-one championship tournament in Israel if Sarsak weren’t freed. “It is time to end the injustice, and insist upon standards of equality, justice and respect of international law—like we demand from any other country,” said the statement.
More surprising than FIFpro’s stance or any words from Cantona was the news on June 12 that the relentlessly reactionary FIFA chieftain Sepp Blatter had called upon the Israeli Football Association to ask its own government to give Sarsak a fair trial or release him altogether. “FIFA urgently calls on IFA to draw the attention of the Israeli competent authorities to the present matter,” Blatter’s office said in a statement, “with the aim of ensuring the physical integrity of the concerned players as well as their right for due process.”
As Israel was finally bending to the pressure, it announced that Sarsak would be freed, but not before saying publicly for the first time that he was a member of the organization Islamic Jihad, which Israel had labeled as “terrorist.” Islamic Jihad rushed to the cameras upon his release to claim him as one of their own, but Sarsak’s message upon his release was neither a response to Israel’s charges, nor for anyone maneuvering to claim his struggle as their own.
“I cannot describe my joy,” Sarsak told journalists. “But at the same time I cannot forget the cries of the prisoners who are still in Israeli prisons. This is a victory for the prisoners, and I thank all the Palestinian, Arab, and international bodies and people who stood up for me.”
This is also a victory for Sarsak and his family. And it’s a victory for sports, solidarity, and the idea that athletes and athletic organizations can still use their voice for the greater good.
Dave Zirin is the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, “Edge of Sports Radio.” His newest book, in collaboration with John Carlos, is “The John Carlos Story,” from Haymarket Books. This article will run in the August issue of The Progressive.