Whatever shyness Mahmoud may have evaporates when he begins to talk. In even, forceful tones he conveys that sense of easy intensity so characteristic of people who have found themselves at the centre of struggle, or who have been victims of the most outrageous injustice. For an hour and a half he holds the attention of a packed and sympathetic audience, answering questions with speed, honesty and conviction. His skills as a public speaker should come as no surprise. Mahmoud has spent the past year on a series of nationwide tours, appearing at countless meetings across France, Germany, Norway and, now, the UK.
He begins by offering a damning indictment of Israel, a country that “seems to do what it wants with impunity” while Palestinians are forced to endure “the confiscation of land, the Apartheid wall, the settlements.” Mahmoud’s home in Gaza – the scene of brutal bombardments by the Israelis in 2008/09 and again in late 2012 – continues to live in the shadow of occupation. “Many believe the propaganda, and ignore the day-to-day atrocities perpetuated by the Israelis. There is a tight siege in Gaza – people find it difficult to get in and out, Israel controls the ports, they control the goods that get in, there is a shortage of fuel, construction materials, even food. Can you imagine what it is like to live with just one hour of electricity per day?”
Such policies can only be maintained through the most horrendous repression. “Israel tries to portray itself as a democratic country,” continues Mahmoud. “Yet there isn’t really a household in Palestine that has not seen someone arrested. There have been 800,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons – some 5,000 are still imprisoned. Many of the prisoners are young people and children. It is a new Israeli policy of killing Palestinians, not physically, but by slowly killing our hopes.”
As Mahmoud talks it is noticeable, perhaps shocking, just how little he mentions the events of his own life that have taken place over the past few years. It is shocking because, for those looking in from the outside, the story of Mahmoud Sarsak is truly remarkable. In 2009 Mahmoud, while attempting to travel to Nablus in the West Bank where he was due to join up with teammates, was arrested by the Israelis at a checkpoint in Gaza. For three years he was detained by the authorities – including being held in solitary confinement for long periods of time – without being charged or offered an explanation for his imprisonment. On 19th March 2012, with no end to his incarceration in sight, a desperate Mahmoud went on hunger strike.
As the days passed, agonisingly slowly, Mahmoud’s plight received more and more attention. Grassroots campaigns gathered momentum in a number of countries, before his case became a cause celebre for a number of famous footballers. Eric Cantona, once of Manchester United, spoke out, as did current players such as Didier Drogba and Freddie Kanoute, their celebrity helping to boost the media profile of the story. FIFPro, an organisation representing 50,000 professional footballers worldwide, joined the growing chorus of disapproval. By the end even Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president and bigot-in-chief, found himself forced into condemning the actions of those who held Sarsak captive. Not that Mahmoud knew any of this at the time. “I had no idea,” he says, “it was only much later that my lawyer told me about what had happened.”
In total Sarsak refused food for 90 days, losing half his body weight in the process. Under mounting international pressure the Israeli state suggested that Sarsak was a member of Islamic Jihad, a charge he has always denied, and one for which no evidence was ever produced. On 10 July, less than a month after ending his hunger strike, he was set free. Mahmoud’s release was a victory for the numerous international solidarity networks who had taken up his cause, as well as testament to the unimaginable resilience of the young footballer. I ask him if he thought he was going to die during those days of starvation. Once more he declines to talk about his own experience, failing, for the first and only time, to directly answer a question: “The Israeli prisons are basically for death”
The inference is clear for all to see. But his reluctance to offer an account of his own life is not merely humility. It is a reminder that while we may see the story of Mahmoud Sarsak as being exceptional, for the people of Gaza the story is unremarkable, perhaps even mundane. Thousands of Palestinians suffer similar fates to Sarsak, many will not have been so lucky. Often people overlook the fact that Mahmoud was not alone in his hunger strike; rather he was one of 1,800 prisoners who chose to refuse food in a coordinated act of collective resistance. By virtue of his fame, such as it is, Mahmoud has been granted a platform to highlight the suffering of all Palestinians. It is both an opportunity and a responsibility which Mahmoud readily acknowledges: “I could have stayed at home, and continued my recovery – but I have chosen to travel and communicate this message.”
As if to emphasise the point, Mahmoud returns to the question of Palestinian prisoners. “How the Israelis treat Palestinian prisoners contradicts the Geneva Convention. Visits by family, clothes, books, education – all are denied by the Israelis. They also put a lot of Palestinian prisoners in solitary confinement, for months, sometimes years.” Not even the sick are exempt from the systematic violence of incarceration: “Another failing of the prison authority is the neglect of medical care for prisoners. People in need of treatment for cancer are often given little more than painkillers. There are 23 or 24 very seriously ill people who are in prison at the moment, but Israel still will not release them.”
Nor are children exempt from the routine of arrests, detention and interrogation. “Israel violates almost all the international law on prisoners,” explains Mahmoud. “They arrest a large number of Palestinian children, who are 14-15 years old, forcing them to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Many children in Palestine have spent some of their life in prison.” With great sadness Mahmoud talks about growing up in Gaza: “Palestinian kids all want to play soccer, but they’re not the same as other kids around the world, because of the Israeli occupation. They play sports in the street because they have nowhere else to play.” Their experiences are far removed from the cosy innocence conjured by images of kids kicking a ball in a park. Palestinian children play football amidst the concrete rubble and the shattered tarmac; the gallery of destruction left behind by F-16s, Apache helicopters and white phosphorous forms a macabre backdrop to their games. “Elsewhere in the world,” Mahmoud continues, “children enjoy the right to live as children, Palestinian children are denied that right, and instead they have to endure the harshness of prison at a young age.”
Few would dispute Mahmoud’s assertion that the “plight of Palestinian sportsman pales in comparison with the general suffering of the Palestinian population, including women and children,” Yet increasingly Israel has targeted Palestinian sport, as well as sportsmen and women. “Israel actively attempts to stop sportsmen and women competing, and there are a large number of athletes in prison,” explains Mahmoud. “Since 2008 we have seen Israel detain a number of sportsmen who were arrested under the administrative detention laws – meaning no charges need be brought. They never have to go to trial.” Palestinian footballer Tariq al Quto was killed by the Israeli Defence Force in 2006; Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate have all died as the result of Israeli airstrikes; Omar Abu Ruways was arrested last year, accused of being a member of a terrorist cell; Mahmoud recalls friends, promising footballers, who have been shot in the legs.
Sporting infrastructure is also targeted: “Israel destroyed a number of sports facilities and centres, some of which were re-built and destroyed again in 2012.” This includes the Palestinian football stadium, ruined in a 2006 bombing raid and devastated again in November 2012. Unsurprisingly organising sport in Palestine is incredibly difficult. The country has two separate football leagues, reflecting the way in which Israel bisects what remains of Palestinian land. A single league is impossible to maintain because travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is impeded by checkpoints, paperwork and the whim of the Israeli border guards. These travelling restrictions do not only impact upon domestic competition. Since its recognition by FIFA in 1998, the Palestinian national team have experienced almost constant disruption to their international schedule. Most infamously the second leg of their World Cup qualifier with Singapore in 2007 was abandoned because players were denied the necessary exit visas allowing them to attend the match.
For Mahmoud the attacks on Palestinian sport are calculated and deliberate. “Israel is worried about Palestinian sportsmen communicating the story of Palestine through sport,” he says. “Sport can help strengthen the relationship between cultures, which is why the Israelis are trying to stop such activities.” Sport can often be tribal and nationalistic, but it also contains the potential for fostering friendship and solidarity. For Palestinian sportspeople it has become another medium through which they can articulate their struggle, another avenue of defiance. This is why Mahmoud talks about football being his ‘weapon of resistance’: “I am showing that, even under occupation, I am not giving up, I can still achieve my dreams of being a footballer.”
Israel too is aware of the power of sport. Its national and club teams compete in prestigious, and extremely lucrative, European football competitions, mocking the logic of geography. Despite UEFA president Michel Platini speaking out over Sarsak’s detention he saw no reason to stop Israel from hosting the European Under-21 Championship during the summer. Staging the tournament on Israeli soil angered Mahmoud: “UEFA were breaking their own rules by giving the tournament to Israel. The message this sends out to Palestinians is that they are giving a green light for Israel to keep on killing people.”
For these reasons Mahmoud sees the call for a sporting boycott of Israel as being a central plank of international Palestinian solidarity work. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has focussed its attention on boycotting Israeli goods, companies and universities – and with some success. The call for a sporting boycott, on the other hand, is rarely raised. Historically, of course, the tactic played a successful role in highlighting the horrors of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. “It is time for the people of the world to help end the suffering, by exposing the ugly face of the Israeli state, to pressurise the world community to act, to end Israeli Apartheid,” urges Mahmoud. “Israel considers the current BDS campaign to be a strategic threat – a sporting boycott could be even more effective.”
Although a sporting boycott would certainly be a step in the right direction. Mahmoud is realistic about the size and scale of the task confronting those seeking justice for the Palestinian people. “If you plant a tree you cannot expect to eat the fruit immediately, you have to be patient, you have to wait. It took decades for the boycott movement to have an effect in South Africa. The BDS campaign in Palestine only really began in 2004/05, and it has already grown into a significant force. We need to keep up this pressure.”
For the foreseeable future Mahmoud Sarsak will play an important role in helping to not only maintain but increase that pressure on Israel. In a couple of weeks he will leave the UK and continue his speaking tour around mainland Europe. Eventually his passion for football will see him return home and resume his career: “At the moment I cannot return to Palestine because the Rafah crossing is closed. The Israeli policy may want to stop people from participating in sports, but I am defiant. I’ve started training and hope to play football again soon.” Considering what has happened to Mahmoud, the daily persecution of the Palestinians, the complicity of the international community in the crimes perpetrated by Israel, one is taken aback by his optimism. But, once more, Mahmoud is expressing more than his own feelings: “The Palestinian people in general are very optimistic, very hopeful. We will always remember what has happened to us, and relate that story to every new generation. But we are hopeful that we will have freedom. We are hopeful that we can live in peace.”