Magazine article The Progressive

Defending Palestinian Soccer

Magazine article The Progressive

Defending Palestinian Soccer

Article excerpt

After three years of detention without facing any formal charges, after a ninety-day hunger strike that almost claimed his life, and after an international outcry, Palestinian Mahmoud Sarsak was finally released from an Israeli prison on July 10.

But Sarsak was not a typical prisoner among the thousands held without charges or hope of trial under Israel's "unlawful combatant" law. The twenty-five-year-old is a member of the Palestinian national soccer team. When the Israelis nabbed Sarsak, he was en route to a national team game, travel papers in hand. He was stopped at a Gaza border checkpoint, arrested, and sent to jail.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sarsak was not the first Palestinian national soccer team member to face harassment, imprisonment, or even death by the Israeli government. When Israel bombed Gaza at the end of 2008 and early 2009, amongst the 1,400 civilians killed were three national team players, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Moshtahe. In that same offensive, the Palestinian national stadium as well as the offices of the Palestinian Football Association were also targeted and destroyed. In 2012, Israeli police arrested the national team goalie, Omar Abu Rwayyis, on terrorism charges."

The Israeli government's theory seems to be if you degrade the national team, you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation.

But what makes Sarsak's story so remarkable is that the world of international soccer, hardly the most political of bodies, would not let him be another of the disappeared.

On June 8, FIFpro, the international union of 50,000 professional soccer players who play under the FIFA banner, put out a formal call for his release.

"The freedom of movement is a fundamental right of every citizen," said FIFpro's vice president, Philippe Piat. "It is also written down in the FIFA Regulations that players must be allowed to play for the national team of their country. But actually for some footballers it is impossible to defend the colors of their country. They cannot cross the border. They cannot visit their family. …

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