Gaza native Mahmoud Sarsak is a member of the Palestinian national football squad. Yet it is not his prowess on the pitch that is foremost on the minds of Palestinians at the moment. The 25-year-old is seriously ill in a hospital in Ramle, a city in Israel, after being on hunger strike for four weeks. He is one of many prisoners depriving himself of food to demand liberty and justice.
Sarsak has been imprisoned for three years now. Although he has never been tried for any recognizable offense, Sarsak’s detention has been continuously renewed every six months. Israel’s internal intelligence service, the Shabak (also known as the Shin Bet) has claimed that Sarsak is imprisoned under an “illegal combatant” law.
“To the best of my knowledge, Mahmoud is the only Palestinian prisoner who is being subjected to this law,” said Sarsak’s lawyer, Muhammad Jabareen. “The illegal combatant law is the Israeli copy or version of the US law introduced for suspected members of al Qaeda, who the US imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, right after going to war in Afghanistan.”
Jabareen explained that Israel has applied the “illegal combatant” law to Gaza after it decided to withdraw its settlements from Gaza in 2005.
“Every time we ask the Shabak what charges they have against Mahmoud, they say he has connections with a terrorist organization and that Mahmoud poses a serious threat to the security of the state of Israel,” Jabareen said.
No answers from Israel
“My family never imagined that Mahmoud would have been imprisoned by Israel,” said his older brother Imad. “Why, really why? This is a question that the Israelis have not yet answered clearly, even to Mahmoud’s lawyer. My brother was enrolled at university to study information technology. When Mahmoud was jailed, he was only 22 and was keen to do more sports activities.”
In July 2009, Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint in the northern Gaza Strip took Mahmoud Sarsak into custody while he was en route to join the Palestinian national football team in the West Bank. Mahmoud’s travel itinerary was coordinated by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and Israel had issued a permit for him to pass through Erez. But that did not stop the soldiers from arresting him. He has been detained in the Negev (Naqab) desert.
“Mahmoud has been fond of football since he was a little child,” said Emad. “At the age of 14, Mahmoud joined local teams here in Rafah. At 17, Mahmoud participated in a contest in Norway, then he travelled to Iraq to take part in the Palestinian national team for teenagers.”
Last year, dozens of Palestinian sports clubs sent a letter to Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, expressing dismay at the organization’s decision to hold the 2013 Under-21 movement in Israel, and citing Sarsak’s arbitrary detention as one of the many abuses Israel carries out against the Palestinian athletic community.
Umm Abelazziz, Mahmoud’s elderly mother, described him as her youngest and dearest son. She has five other boys, as well as five daughters. “May God allow me to see Mahmoud in front of me, before something happens to me or I pass away,” she said. “When I heard that he began a hunger strike, I was plagued with high blood pressure. I am very worried about him. What is going on? I wish he had not gone on a hunger strike. I would have preferred that he remained steadfast without that hunger strike.”
“Every time I go the local market, I just remember where Mahmoud used to stand and the groceries he used to buy. Also, whenever we make a dish he used to like, I start to cry.”
Kamel Sarsak, Mahmoud’s father, has sold fruit in Rafah for many years but has been unwell in recent times. “I still can’t understand why my son Mahmoud has been detained. I had a heart attack, right after I was informed that he was arrested three years ago.”
Mahmoud Abu Ahmad, a friend of Mahmoud Sarsak recalls: “The day Mahmoud was detained, he borrowed my sports shoes. We had trained and played a lot together. Once I had a fight with some folks in the neighborhood, then I phoned Mahmoud and when he came over, the fight was defused very smoothly. He was such a good-natured friend, a type of person that is rarely found.”
According to the PA’s Ministry for Prisoners’ Affairs, there are currently 4,700 Palestinian men, women and children detainees inside Israeli jails.
On 17 April, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners declared an open-ended hunger strike. About 2,000 more joined them in a single day of solidarity fasting, to protest against solitary confinement, inadequate medical care and denial of family visits.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.