Palestinian footballer, hunger striker and former prisoner Mahmoud Sarsak has confirmed that he has received an invitation to attend the 7 October Clasico match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid amid a continuing uproar over an invitation to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to attend the same match.
“A short time ago I spoke on the telephone with the Palestinian ambassador [in Spain] and the head of the Palestinian Football Federation Mr. Jibril Rajoub, and they informed me of this invitation officially,” Sarsak told the Al-Kitab satellite TV station on Friday.
Asked whether he would accept, Sarsak said, “It is a great honor and it is a victory for a Palestinian prisoner and for the Palestinian cause and a victory for our principles and stances that a prisoner who is at the same time an athlete should go out and expain the suffering of his people. But in the presence of the soldier Gilad Shalit on the same stands, I will refuse this invitation.”
Sarsak said that Shalit, as an occupation soldier, had participated in violence and destruction against Palestinians in Gaza: “his slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
Sarsak acknowledged FC Barcelona’s position that it had not invited Shalit, but that the club had merely accepted a request for him to view the match. Spanish media – citing club sources – have reported that an Israeli ex-minister asked the club to invite Shalit.
Nevetheless, Sarsak expressed concern about the circumstances in which the subsequent invitation to him had been announced and how his presence – at the same time as Shalit – could be interpreted: “I know that the invitation was issued after heavy pressure on FC Barcelona so that it could get out of its dilemma, but the Palestinian people are not and will not be a means for [others] to get out of their dilemmas.”
Attending the match “could reflect negatively on the Palestinian cause” Sarsak said, “especially when the western media or Israeli media view it as an invitation to normalization. Let us note especially that in the fourth paragraph of the invitation, is a call for ‘peace and harmony,’ which indicates a certain policy of normalization.”
This was an apparent reference to the 27 September statement on the official FC Barcelona website that announced the invitation to Sarsak.
“I cherish the invitation of a great club like Barcelona,” Sarsak said, “but not in the same match, and if it were ever in the same match I would never meet [Shalit], because this is an invitation for normalization.”
Sarsak spent three years in Israeli captivity without charge or trial until he forced Israel to release him last June with a three-month hunger strike that brought him to the edge of death.
The Shalit invitation has prompted strong opposition from Palestine solidarity groups, such as BDS Catalunya, and was condemned by dozens of Palestinian football clubs, athletes and sports organizations.