The football player who wouldn’t play ball with Israeli injustice

Amnesty International delegates met family of Palestinian on hunger strike against his detention without trial in Israel

When we arrived in Gaza on 13 June, Mahmoud al-Sarsak had been on hunger strike for more than 91 days. Soon after our entry we headed south, to Rafah, where Mahmoud’s family lives.

In the main square in Rafah stood the tent erected to show solidarity with Mahmoud; activists have painted a large mural on one side and put pictures of him all around the square.

Our arrival was followed by that of the youth football team that had won a competition held in support of Mahmoud. They were greeted with cheers.

The square was bustling with the noise of cars, people speaking, kids playing, and Palestinian songs blasting from the speakers set up by the activists.

In the midst of it all Mahmoud’s family were sitting next to each other. Their silence was overwhelming, almost deafening.

We approached the family and arranged to speak with them at the nearby office of the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights.

On the way we asked Mahmoud’s brother Imad about the last time he had heard from his sibling, and he told us about a letter he’d received.

“It was devastating,” he said, “I could not finish reading it. My young brother was describing his death to me; he was asking me to do certain things when we receive him back as a dead body. I could not finish reading it, and I promised myself not to talk about it to anyone. You are the first one I mention this to. I am not sure why I am doing this now.”

The family has had no direct contact with Mahmoud since he began his hunger strike on 16 March. They, as other families from Gaza, are prohibited from visiting their son in the Israeli prison. Since his arrest in 2009, the family have been able to speak with him only a few times over the phone.

In the office the family told us about their son before the arrest. They described a young man with large ambitions who travelled to Norway, Iraq, Kuwait, and Iran to play with the Palestinian national football team. The family talked about the prizes that Mahmoud had won, how international football coaches and players praised his talent, the offers he received, and how he was realizing his dream by becoming a professional football player.

“He was the youngest player on the national team,” his mother says proudly. For the first time we can see a hint of a smile on her face. But that quickly disappears. “He was travelling to the West Bank where a football club had contracted him when the Israelis arrested him. He has been locked up for more than three years for absolutely no reason. Now he is dying, and we are dying each day a thousand times with him.”

At some point during the conversation Imad broke down and left the room to wash his face. We decided to wrap it up and give them some space; it was turning dark and it had obviously been another long and difficult day for this family whose son has decided to protest the injustice Israel has imposed on him.

But we had to ask one more question, we wanted to know what the family wants from the international community and what they think they could do.

“We want to thank you all. Everyone who is standing with Mahmoud now and campaigning for his cause. We thank them and ask that they continue the pressure, especially people in Western countries, they can demand that their governments save Mahmoud. There is no time left.”

We said goodbye and returned to the square again. Most people have left and only a handful of the activists organizing the activities are still there. Solidarity for this day is done, but the family’s agony grows and Mahmoud is ever closer to death.

There is no time left indeed and Israel must do the right thing now and admit Mahmoud to a hospital to save his life or release him immediately to receive the appropriate medical care.

Read more:

Palestinian hunger striker on verge of death must be admitted to hospital or released (News story, 14 June 2012)Hunger striker nears death in prison clinic: Mahmoud al-Sarsak (Urgent action, 11 June 2012)
Starved of Justice: Palestinians detained without trial by Israel (Report, 6 June 2012)