In news that will provoke tears of joy throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip and not a few locker rooms, it was announced today that Mahmoud Sarsak, jailed Palestinian soccer star and hunger striker, would be released on July 10. Sarsak was arrested on his way to a national team match as he tried to cross the Gaza border, with travel approval from Israel in his hand. He has been held for three years without charges, a trial or even contact with his family. Over the last ninety days, Sarsak has refused food, continuing to adhere to an organized hunger strike of 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, even after their action was resolved.
Sarsak’s worsening health brought global attention to his case. Amnesty international put out an alert last week that Sarsak was on the brink of death, but it was the sports world that brought his struggle out of the shadows. On June 8, FIFpro, an international union of 50,000 professional soccer players, put out a formal call for his release. It also addressed a larger pattern at work, where members of the Palestinian National Team have been systematically blocked at checkpoints, jailed or even killed.
The organization’s vice president, Philippe Piat, said, “The freedom of movement is a fundamental right of every citizen. 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 colours of their country. They cannot cross the border. They cannot visit their family. They are locked up. This is an injustice.”
In addition, famed Manchester United player Eric Cantona signed a statement saying that UEFA should cancel its upcoming under-21 championship tournament in Israel if Sarsak weren’t freed. The statement read, “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.”
More surprising than FIFpro’s stance or any words from Cantona was the news on June 12 that the reptilian FIFA chief, Sepp Blatter, called upon the Israeli Football Association to agitate for Sarsak to get his day in court. Blatter’s office said in a statement, “FIFA urgently calls on IFA to draw the attention of the Israeli competent authorities to the present matter, with the aim of ensuring the physical integrity of the concerned players as well as their right for due process. The matter came to FIFA’s attention following correspondence with the Palestine Football Association, several international media reports concerning the football player Mahmoud Sarsak and a FIFPro media release.”
Blatter is nothing if not a survivor, and his move, as James Dorsey, from the indispensible MidEast Soccer Blog, said to me, “Is classic CYA [cover your ass]…. I don’t think Blatter had much choice. Sarsak is putting everyone, including Israel and FIFA, on the spot. His health is reportedly deteriorating rapidly and his death could spark widespread protests in the occupied territories. Blatter does not want to be seen as not having stood up to what clearly is not due process.” He’s right.
It’s safe to say that if Sarsak had died, and Blatter had done nothing, the outrage could have ended his tenure at the top of the sport. It also could have imperiled not only the 2013 UEFA tournament in Israel, already targeted by Europe’s “Red Card Israeli Apartheid” movement, but the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. If there was a nuclear war, I’m convinced that only roaches and Blatter would walk away unscathed.
Now that Sarsak’s release has been announced, Israel has said to the press that they believed him to be in the terrorist organization “Islamic Jihad.” These accusations are news to Sarsak’s lawyer, his family and his friends. This is someone whose only crime was attempting to cross a border to play soccer. His arrest is seen much more as part of a broader effort to degrade this “national team without a nation” than anything he may have done off the pitch. Given what we know, it’s remarkable that it took Blatter and friends three years to say something, But it’s equally remarkable to all involved that international solidarity and awareness finally forced Israel’s hand.
BDS activist Laura Durkay said to me after Blatter’s statement, “The next step should be to move from symbolic statements to actions to boycott and isolate Israel in the sports world, according to the guidelines for cultural boycott set out by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee.”
Not only does Sarsak live but the movement lives as well. It's been strengthened by Sarsak’s survival and the revelation for many that the thankless, frustrating and often devastating work of international solidarity with political prisoners can actually work.