Sunday, June 10, 2012

War rages on Palestinian soccer

June 6, 2012 Asia Times
By Ramzy Baroud

On June 4, Palestinian national soccer team member Mahmoud Sarsak
completed 81 days of a grueling hunger strike. He had sustained the
strike despite the fact that nearly 2,000 Palestinian inmates had
called off their own 28-day hunger strike weeks ago.

Although the story of Palestinian prisoners in Israel speaks to a
common reality of unlawful detentions and widespread mistreatment,
Sarsak's fate can also be viewed within its own unique context. The
soccer player, who once sought to take the name and flag of his
nation to international arenas, was arrested by Israeli soldiers in
July 2009 while en route to join the national team in the West Bank.

Sarsak was branded an "illegal combatant" by Israel's military
judicial system, and has since been imprisoned without any charges or trial.

Sarsak is not alone in the continued hunger strike. Akram al-Rekhawi,
a diabetic prisoner demanding proper medical care, has refused food
for over 50 days.

At the time of writing of this article, both men were reportedly in
dire medical condition. Sarsak, once of unmatched athletic build, is
now gaunt beyond recognition. The already ill al-Rekhawi is dying.

According to rights groups, an Israeli court on May 30 granted prison
doctors 12 more days before allowing independent doctors to visit the
prisoners, further prolonging their suffering and isolation.
Physicians for Human Rights - Israel (PHRI), which has done a
remarkable job battling the draconian rules of Israeli military
courts, continues to petition the court to meet with both Sarsak and
al-Rekhawi, according to Ma'an news agency.

Sadly, the story here becomes typical. PHRI, along with other
prisoners' rights groups, are doing all that civil society
organizations can do within such an oppressive legal and political
situation. Families are praying. Social media activists are sending
constant updates and declaring solidarity. Meanwhile, the rest of the
world is merely looking on - not due to any lack of concern for human
rights, but due to the selective sympathy of Western governments and media.

Think of the uproar made by US media over the fate of blind Chinese
political activist Chen Guangcheng. When he took shelter in the US
embassy in Beijing, a near-diplomatic crisis ensued. Guangcheng was
finally flown to the US on May 19, and he recently delivered a talk
in New York before an astounded audience.

"The 40-year-old, blind activist said that his lengthy detention [of
seven years] demonstrates that lawlessness is still the norm in
China," reported the New York Post on May 31. "Is there any justice?
Is there any rationale in any of this?" Chen asked. Few in the US
media would contend with the statement. But somehow the logic becomes
entirely irrelevant when the perpetrator of injustice is Israel, and
the victim is a Palestinian. Al-Rekhawi is not blind, but he has many
medical ailments. He has been in Ramle prison clinic since his
detention in 2004, receiving severely inadequate medical care.

Sarsak, who has been a witness to many tragedies, is now becoming
one. The 25-year old had once hoped to push the ranking of his
national team back to a reasonable standing. If Palestinians ever
deserve to be called "fanatics", it would be in reference to soccer.
As a child growing up in Gaza, I remember playing soccer in
increments of a few minutes, braving Israeli military curfews,
risking arrest, injury and even death. Somehow, in a very crowded
refugee camp, soccer becomes tantamount to freedom.

Palestine's ranking at 164th in the world is testament not to any
lack of passion for the game, but to the constant Israeli attempts at
destroying even that national aspiration.

The examples of Israeli war on Palestinian soccer are too many to
count, although most of them receive little or no media coverage
whatsoever. In 2004, Israel blocked several essential players from
accompanying the national team out of Gaza for a second match against
Chinese Taipei. (Palestine had won the first match 8-0.) The
obstacles culminated in the March 2006 bombing of the Palestinian
Football Stadium in Gaza, which reduced the grass field to a massive
crater. Then, in the war on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead 2008-09),
things turned bloody as Israel killed three national soccer players:
Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshtahe. It also bombed their
stadium again.

Sarsak was a promising new face of Palestinian soccer. In times of
Palestinian disunity and factionalism, it was the national team that
kept a symbolic unity between Gaza and the West Bank - and indeed
Palestinians everywhere. These young men exemplify hope that better
times are ahead. But Sarsak's star is now fading, as is his life. His
mother, who hasn't seen him since his arrests, told Ma'an that she
thinks of him every minute of each day. "Why is there no one moving
to save his life?" she asked.

Writing in the Nation on May 10, Dave Zirin wrote:
Imagine if a member of Team USA Basketball - let's say Kobe Bryant -
had been traveling to an international tournament only to be seized
by a foreign government and held in prison for three years without
trial or even hearing the charges for which he was imprisoned ...
Chances are all the powerful international sports organizations - the
IOC [International Olympic Committee], [global football's organizing
body] FIFA - would treat the jailing nation as a pariah until Kobe
was free. And chances are that even Laker-haters would wear buttons
that read, "Free Kobe".

Sarsak is the Bryant of his people. But ask any political commentator
and he will tell you why Mohmoud Sarsak is not Kobe Bryant, and why
al-Rekhawi is not Chen. It is the same prevalent logic of a powerful
Washington-based pro-Israel lobby and all the rest.

Even if the logic was founded, why are international sports
institutions not standing in complete solidarity with the dying
Sarsak? Why don't soccer matches include a moment of solidarity with
killed Palestinian players, and the dying young man aching to join
his teammates on the field once more? Why is Israel not fully and
comprehensively boycotted by every international sports organization?

"As long as Sarsak remains indefinitely detained and as long as
Israel targets sport and athletes as legitimate targets of war, they
have no business being rewarded by FIFA or the UEFA, let alone even
being a part of the community of international sports," wrote Zirin
(the second being the European footballing organization).

That would be a belated step, but an unequivocally urgent one, for
Palestinian sportsmen are literally dying.

Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally syndicated
columnist and the editor of His latest book
is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

No comments: