Mahmoud Sarsak: Israel Was Threatened

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Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak, who staged a hunger strike of nearly three months while in Israeli jail, is greeted by supporters as he arrives in an ambulance at the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on 10 July 2012 upon his release from prison. (Photo: AFP - Mahmud Hams)

By: Shuaib Abu Jahal

Published Monday, July 16, 2012

The Palestinian footballer that Israel imprisoned and tortured for three years without trial is finally free after a hunger strike that lasted for 92 days. Here, he tells Al-Akhbar the story of his arrest, imprisonment, and release, as well as messages sent through him from fellow prisoners he left behind.

Shuaib Abu Jahal(SAJ): How were you arrested?

Mahmoud Sarsak (MS): I was not arrested. I was kidnapped at the Beit Hanoun-Erez crossing in July 2009.

I was on my way to sign a deal with the Balata Youth Center in Nablus in the West Bank when I was kidnapped and questioned for 35 days.

This included a violent military interrogation and torture. In the end, they issued a ruling branding me “an illegal combatant.”

SAJ: What were the charges against you?

MS: There were many but they were all pure lies and fabrications.

I believe that the only reason I was detained was because I am a Palestinian football player and I had travelled abroad to represent my country, raising its flag in international events.

This upsets Israel and exposes it to the world. By arresting me, they wanted to prevent this message from reaching the world.

There was no specific charge. I have spoken to the president of the Palestinian Football Union, Jibril Rajoub, and he revealed to me that Joseph Blatter (head of FIFA) followed my case for three years.

The Israelis told Blatter that I was a serious security threat and that I was accused of killing five Israeli soldiers. This is a lie.

I am a football player, not a fighter. When I went on hunger strike, the Israeli lies were exposed, so Blatter insisted on my release and threatened to withdraw Israel’s FIFA membership.

SAJ: What was your life in prison like?

MS: Inside prison, the occupation forces stole my life. It appropriated the peak of my sporting prime.

I was tortured during interrogation. Many cannot withstand this and are martyred during it, but I survived.

SAJ: How did you spend the three years in prison?

MS: My day began immediately after dawn prayers. I read the Quran and trained for an hour. I sprinted and skipped rope, for example.

After that we prepared a special breakfast and then began our reading sessions. I benefitted from my days in prison because I enrolled in the College of Applied Vocational Sciences. I completed my diploma with a 96 percent average.

I spent most of my time in prison in Negev, but after that I was moved between nine prisons, including Nafha, Ramon, and Ramla. I spent all my time there in isolation.

SAJ: How did you communicate with your family?

MS: Sadly, communication with family members was strictly forbidden. The only way to communicate was through a letter sent every seven months.

SAJ: And the trials?

MS: I appeared before a court every six months, but they were all a sham.

I would be told the same thing every time: “You are a threat to the security of the state of Israel.”

I was not allowed to plead and I did not have my own lawyer. This is all because I had been branded an “illegal combatant.”

SAJ: Why did you go on hunger strike? And what are conditions like for Palestinians in Israeli prisons?

MS: Going on a hunger strike was the only way for a prisoner to achieve his demands. This had been proven not long before, when some prisoners won their fight against the authorities.

I knew I could achieve my goal. In the end, I won and I got out of prison.

As for conditions inside the jails, they are very difficult. They are catastrophic and the situation could explode at any moment.

SAJ: Did the prison authorities put pressure on you?

MS: I was put under a lot of pressure.

They asked me to make certain pledges in order to be released, such as not to threaten the security of Israel. But I did not give them any assurances. I am a free man. They have no case against me.

SAJ: How did the decision to release you come about?

MS: After some fierce negotiations.

When the decision was announced, my family’s suffering – not just mine – ended. They were in a very difficult situation and were very relieved when I came out.

But I was expecting a mass release to be signed, resolving the cases of the prisoners who had gone on hunger strike with me, such as Hasan al-Safadi, Akram al-Rikhawi, and Samer al-Barq, but it was not to be.

SAJ: What message did the prisoners send with you?

MS: The first message is to the media and it is about the need to focus more on the prisoners, particularly those on hunger strike.

The second message is the case of 16 prisoners who are sick and dying in Ramla Hospital, the “Ramla Prison Massacre.”

I also have a message to the rival Palestinian factions asking them to unite, so that the Palestinian people can be one again, and so that the two sections of our country can unite under the Palestinian flag, not live under the flags of political parties.

SAJ: How would you describe your joy at being released?

MS: I felt great joy. A joy I have never felt before. We distributed sweets and danced as if we had just won the Euro or World Cup.

The deal to release me was an exuberant and honorable one. We saw the jailer broken and miserable and we were happy.

I am happy to be among my family, my mother and father. However, it is an incomplete joy. I left some people behind, dying in prison.

SAJ: You are a sportsman. How would you describe the stand taken by the sports world to support your case?

MS: I am very happy with the stand the world took with my case, particularly the sports people, because it is sports that saved me from the claws of the occupation.

It was a passionate stand, particularly that of the sports commentators who spoke about me during matches, such al-Shawwali, al-Darraji, Khleif, and the Egyptian sports channels.

SAJ: What is Mahmoud Sarsak’s dream?

MS: My dream is for all prisoners to be freed and for me to become a player in one of the prominent countries, so that I can communicate to the world the Palestinian cause and the cause of the prisoners.

SAJ: Will you go back to football?

MS: Definitely. I will be back on the pitch as soon as my health improves.

Call for Unity

I ask all sides in the national struggle for Palestine to work towards unity and national reconciliation.

This is not a message from me alone, it comes from all the prisoners.

I say to them that our unity is the secret of our power and our unity is what will communicate our cause to the whole world.

It is our unity which will expose Israel’s occupation policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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