INTERVIEW: “Every human being dreams to live his life freely” by Mahmoud Sarsak 20Jul13 July 20, 2013


Interviewed by Amelia Smith    -     MEMO-Middle East Monitor    -     10 July 2013

Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak spent three years in an Israeli prison without trial. Now he is boycotting UEFA’s decision to hold the Under-21s Championship there. He speaks to MEMO about his experience.

Mahmoud Sarsak was a keen footballer by the age of seven. His family were also sports players and he lived two minutes from his club in the Gaza Strip so was always surrounded by players. He went on to become a member of the Palestine national football team and played in the Norwegian youth tournament, the Norway Cup, and later against Iraq.

When I meet him, Mahmoud is wearing jeans and white trainers which match the Palestinian keffiyeh wrapped around his neck. He recalls an important match in 2007 between his club Rafah Services and Shujaiyya Union where his team won. “In spite of the siege, which had started then, in spite of all of the attacks we still managed to win the tournament” he says proudly.

But two years later, at the Erez Crossing into Israel to train with the West Bank club Balata Youth, he was shocked when he was called for an ‘interview’ with Israeli authorities; a tradition, he points out, that usually lasts for two or three hours. “I could see the cars that carry people between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank waiting there for me, standing there before my eyes, knowing that in a few hours I would be able to achieve my dream and go and join this team” he says.

But his ‘interview’ lasted from 9.30am until 1am the next day when he was blindfolded and told he was in an interrogation prison in Ashkelon and that there was a warrant against him. He wasn’t released for three years, though never went on trial nor was he formally charged.

During his detention Mahmoud was moved around between various prisons. Inside he was subjected to physical and psychological torture and long stretches of solitary confinement in horrendous conditions. “What I can say is that it [the prison] is not fit or eligible for human beings. There’s no sun, no air, no ventilation, damp, diseases, prison cells measuring two metres by two metres.” At times the prison guards would confiscate his books, and his family were not allowed to visit for the duration of his time inside. “They were difficult days but they used to pass” he says.

Whilst Mahmoud was there, his friend and fellow detainee Palestinian football player Zakaria Issa was diagnosed with terminal cancer, refused treatment and died. His frustration with the absence of intervention from UEFA and other sports bodies and the prospect of spending years ahead in such harrowing conditions convinced him to take action. “It encouraged me to take my freedom in my own hands and go on hunger strike” he explains.

“I don’t know if this marginalisation and lack of action is a result of lack of information on the prisoners or if it’s whether the media portrays a stigmatised picture or image of the Palestinian political prisoners and detainees” he says contemplating the silence that surrounded both his and Zakaria’s imprisonment. “Consequently people fear supporting Palestinian political prisoners because of the wrong image being portrayed by the media.”

Mahmoud’s case was marginalised and only picked up on when he went on hunger strike. Even then he was not aware of the protests for demanding his release, or what was happening in the outside world as he was in solitary confinement, his radio was confiscated and he had no access to the media. From the day he started the strike it took 97 days before he was released, a feeling he describes as “a kind of painful happiness.”

“Every human being dreams to live his life freely without any pressure from anyone, without being violated or mistreated” he says. “As you may know detainees dream of freedom, they dream to see their families and achieve their aspirations and dreams and hopes.” But whilst he was looking forward to seeing his family and friends he had a pain in his heart because he knew he was leaving his friends behind who would be subjected to the same means of physical and psychological torture that he had endured.

Whilst in prison Mahmoud lost more than half his body weight. When he was released he received treatment from Israel for 20 days in which time they gave him “dirty” blood full of viruses which took him another seven months to recover from. Now he is still in the process of regaining his strength but insists that “for me being free is above anything, any feelings of pain.”

Though the official reason Mahmoud was arrested is that he was involved in Islamic jihad, sufficient evidence to warrant a trial was not brought against him. “I’ve been keeping up with Israeli media but I still can’t find one reason why I was arrested” he says. “All I know is that Israel is practicing a systematic policy of targeting talented Palestinian youth, intellectuals, academics, gifted people and namely sports men and women to kill their aspirations and dreams and to prevent them from becoming popular and famous whereby they can expose these Israeli practices.”

He points out that Israel is scared about its reputation in Europe. Once their image is tarnished there Israel will lose all its credibility in Europe. “This is what Israel hinges on, this democratic, civil image. That’s why they have chained sportsmen’s aspirations and dreams. By preventing them from becoming famous so they can raise awareness of Israeli violations.”

Mahmoud is boycotting UEFA’s decision to hold the European Under-21s Championships in Israel, with the aim of holding them accountable, to “maintain the ethics and values of sports that are stipulated in the UEFA statutes and that of other international bodies.”

He believes their decision to hold the tournament gives Israel the green light to continue its practices against Palestinian sportspeople and obstruct sports in the occupied territories. “I and campaigners need to raise the awareness of officials in UEFA about the violations that Israel is subjecting Palestinian sportsmen to and that’s why I’ve decided to join the campaign to boycott their decision.”

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