Updated: 28 September 2012:
Despite opposition from Palestine solidarity activists and Palestinians, FC Barcelona on Wednesday confirmed it had extended a VIP invitation to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli occupation soldier who was held as a prisoner of war in Gaza for five years, to attend a football match against Real Madrid at Barcelona’s home stadium Camp Nou on 7 October.
“This invitation does not indicate in any way that [the club] Barça takes a position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” a club source told AFP. “In fact, remember that [club] vice president Villarubí received Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2011 and showed him all the club’s facilities,” the source added.
Palestinian hunger striker, footballer Mahmoud Sarsak and Gaza clubs speak out
On Thursday, hunger striker Mahmoud Sarsak who was held for three years without charge or trial by Israel said, “As a released prisoner, Palestinian national team footballer and big fan of FC Barcelona, I strongly condemn the club’s decision to invite the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to one of their matches and I call on them to cancel this decision.”
Sarsak’s statement came in a letter signed by dozens of Gaza football clubs, sports associations and coaches, including the FC Barcelona Fans Association in Gaza, which stated:
Just as the effective boycott of sports teams from the South African apartheid regime showed, sporting and political life cannot be separated. We ask you to not show solidarity with the army that oppresses, imprisons and kills Palestinian sportsmen and women in Palestine.
In a new development on 28 September, Sarsak rejected an invitation by FC Barcelona to also attend the 7 October match.
Petition: Shalit “represents” the Israeli army
Palestine solidarity activists in Spain have strongly opposed FC Barcelona’s move. El Pais quoted BDS activists saying, “The protests [video] during the Barcelona-Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball match [in 2011] will be nothing compared to what we are preparing for Camp Nou.”
“We understand that this is a gesture of good will by the Club towards a person who has suffered five long years of captivity in the Gaza Strip and who has made known his admiration for the Barcelona team,” the petition states, “However, the former soldier Gilad Shalit is not just an Israeli citizen; he’s also Sergeant Major of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), an army that since 1967 has illegally occupied the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza strip and the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights.”
Recalling the Israeli army’s long history of “colonization, apartheid and ethnic cleansing,” including the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza that killed 1,400 people, the petition noted that even if Shalit is no longer officially part of the army, “he still symbolically represents the IDF.”
Israel lobby groups in Spain are already pushing back. Masha Gabriel, editor of the Spanish-language website of the anti-Palestinian group CAMERA, wrote a letter in El Pais defending the decision to invite Shalit and claiming that referring to Israel’s attack on Gaza – in which entire families of civilians were wiped out – as a “massacre” could not be more “tendentious.”
Shalit on the celebrity circuit
Shalit is known to be a soccer fan and, according to Israeli media, frequently beat his Hamas captors at the FIFA Soccer videogame on Sony PlayStation.
In the year since his release, Shalit has been on the celebrity circuit as part of Israel’s public relations efforts, writing on Ynet that, “I met many people, visited many places and experienced things I never even dreamt of experiencing. For example, at the NBA Finals in Miami I celebrated with the players in the locker room and got wet from the champagne they poured on each other.”
No attention to Palestinian prisoners and athletes
By contrast, the BDS Catalunya petition expresses surprise to see FC Barcelona offer “so much friendship and sympathy towards the only Israeli soldier to be imprisoned in recent years as a result of this conflict while, at the same time, maintaining absolute silence about the 4,660 Palestinian prisoners now confined in Israeli prisons.”
It notes that:
Barcelona football club should know that among the Palestine prisoners there are also many sportsmen. The case of Mahmoud Sarsak is especially revealing of the way the Israeli regime mistreats the Palestinian people and in particular their sportsmen. Sarsak, who comes from the Gaza strip, is a football player who has played in the Palestinian national team. He was arrested by the Israeli army on July 22 2009 and spent 3 years of his life in prison under administrative detention, that is to say without charges or trial. Sarsak achieved freedom on 10 July 2012, after 3 months of hunger strike, which forced the Israeli authorities to recognise that he was being detained illegally. During his hunger strike, in which he came close to death, he received the support of Eric Cantona, Frédéric Kanouté, the President of the UEFA Michel Platini, the President of the FIFA Sepp Blatter and FIFPro (a worldwide professional football players’ association).
Sarsak, who recently spoke to The Electronic Intifada in Gaza, has called on people around the world to continue their solidarity actions with Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails.
Open Letter from Gaza footballers to FC Barcelona club: Do not side with the oppressor
Besieged Gaza, Occupied Palestine 27 September 2012
Dear President Sandro Rosell,
We, Palestinian footballers, athletes and sporting organizations and officials, are dismayed to learn the great team of Barcelona will host Gilad Shalit to the Classico, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, on October 7th, while more than 5000 Palestinian political prisoners remain rotting, many in isolation, many with no visits, many on hunger strike with no attention or care for them to be released.
The arbitrary arrest of thousands of Palestinians, including Gazan Palestinian National Team football star Mahmoud Kamel Sarsak, who was held without trial or indeed public explanation for the arrest, is a routine tool of Israeli occupation. Mahmoud was only released after a 95-day hunger strike. Many others are in Israeli prison on hunger strike as we write, some close to death. Mahmoud Sarsek lost 3 years of his football career and nearly died while protesting with the only means possible to him. He deserves to be hosted!
Joseph S. Blatter, President of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), has expressed “grave concern” towards Israeli practices and its restrictions on Palestinian players, especially those incarcerated in Israeli prisons, or banned from assembling for the national team. And Michel Platini said, “Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behavior.”
The Israeli illegal military occupation of Palestine and the five-year siege on Gaza has suffocated the aspirations of Palestinian sports men, women and youth for decades. So where are the consequences? Political support for Israel’s practices by hosting one of the Israel occupation force soldiers at one of the world’s greatest clubs?!
More Palestinians in Gaza support Barcelona than any other club, especially among children who make up the majority of the population. We, in Gaza, have all been through so much under a hermetic siege, regular bombardments, and frequent incursions.
The use of overwhelming force in Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-09 was responsible for levelling large swathes of Gaza including the Rafah National football Stadium, and killing football players Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate, as well as over 1,400 other Gazans. National team goalkeeper, Omar Abu Rwayyis, was arrested by Israeli police in 2012 on “terrorism charges,” a label used for people whose life was football, not politics. Many times the Palestinian team could not assemble, train or participate in tournaments because of Israeli illegal restrictions on player movement.
Our footballers are continually deprived entry or exit from what many mainstream human rights organizations call the world’s largest open-air prison. You must be aware of the example last year when Israel refused to allow six members of the Palestinian national team to travel from Gaza to a match against Mauritania.
Like everyone stranded in Gaza, Israeli spokesmen said the players were denied access for “security reasons,” claiming they did not have the correct permit, reminiscent of the notorious racist “pass law” in Apartheid South Africa. This is a continuous systematic policy for all of us that has decimated our involvement in international sport. The uncertainties from refused permissions to leave and enter the Gaza Strip and the changing severity of the Israeli siege and Occupation are a major impediment and as a result the West Asian Union Federation does not always schedule games involving our teams.
In 2007 the national team was prevented from travelling to play a World Cup Qualifier in Singapore and eliminated, and in May 2008 for the AFC Challenge Cup denying them qualification for the 2011 Asia Cup. The Olympic players from Gaza have been barred from entry to the West Bank and the youth teams have frequently been denied exit and re-entry.
During Israel’s criminal attacks on Gaza in 2009 our national stadium was targeted and destroyed, as was the Palestinian Football Association building. A new stadium planned to be built in Beit Lahiya, Gaza was halted because of the continuing Israeli siege, which still bars concrete from entering the Gaza Strip along with other sports equipment. And the only grass pitch in Gaza had previously been blown up by an Israeli missile forcing the national team to play matches in a virtually empty stadium in Qatar.
Just as the effective boycott of sports teams from the South African apartheid regime showed, sporting and political life cannot be separated. We ask you to not show solidarity with the army that oppresses, imprisons and kills Palestinian sportsmen and women in Palestine, and instead reach out to those Palestinian footballers with destroyed dreams and broken opportunities due entirely to the Israeli regime’s apartheid policies against them.
In the words of Mahmoud Sarsak:
As a released prisoner, Palestinian national team footballer and big fan of FC Barcelona, I strongly condemn the club’s decision to invite the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to one of their matches and I call on them to cancel this decision. There are almost 5,000 political prisoners held captive in Israeli jails, suffering daily the horrifying Israeli prison practices that violate international humanitarian law and international agreements.
Our prisoners, many of whom are footballers and other athletes, are facing some of the most brutal methods and practices of psychological and physical torture. Only former captives like myself know the full story of such oppression and humiliation which will haunt us for many years to come. I call on FC Barca to boycott participation with Israeli sports teams and call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel until it allows Palestinians their fundamental rights, including the right to participate freely in sport and sports competitions. Do not invite the Israel Occupation Forces soldier Gilad Shalit when so many Palestinians rot in Israeli prisons for the crime of being Palestinians who wish to play football and other sports.
Hosting Gilad Shalit is like parading a SADF soldier during the 1980s at a European soccer match. Would you have done that, FC Barcelona?
- FC Barcelona Fans Association in Gaza
- Alwehda (unity) Club-Rafah
- Alasteqlal (independence) Club-Rafah
- Jamaa’i Rafah Club
- Alnuseirat Services Club
- Deir Elbalah Services Club
- Deir Elbalah Union Club
- Alsalah Charity Club
- Alwehda Club- Jabalia
- Jabalia Youths Club
- Beit Hanoun Civil Club
- Beit Lahyia Club
- Albureij Services Club
- Alaqsa Club-Alnuseirat
- Almaghazi Services Club
- Alnuseirat Sefrvices Club
- Alzawaida Youth Club
- Jabalia Union Club
- Ansaar Jabalia Club
- Alkarama Club
- Gaza Sporting Club
- RafahYouths Club
- ALtarabot Club- Deir Albalah
- Albureij Civil Club
- Alredwan Club
- Hetteen Club
- Alta3awn (Cooperation) Club
- Alwefaq Club
- Aljazeera Club
- Alyarmouk Club
- Alrayaan Club
- Albureij Youths Club
- Alrebaat Club
- Alzawaida Union Club
- Almaghazi Youths Club
- Alqarara Club
- Alataa’ Althahabi Club
- Alshaf3’ Club
- Alshareqa Club
- Canada Club
- Alqadessia Club
- Tel Alsoultaan Club
- Shatti Services Club
- Islamic Assembly Club
- Khan Younus Union Club
- Rafah Youth Club
- Sports College—Al-Aqsa University
- Players and coaches:
- Mahmoud Sarsak (Palestine Soccer National Team Player)
- Ghassan Balaawi (Palestine Soccer National Team Ex-coach)
- Khaled Quake (Under 20 Palestine soccer Team coach)
- Naim Salameh ( Coach)
- Naif Abdul Hadi (Coach)
- Jamal El Houli (Coach)
- Abdul Hai Abu Shammaleh (Coach)