Sunday, June 10, 2012

A game of life and death

AS the media focus on the Euro2012 competition, let's hope they don't ignore a football star for whom "sudden death" would not just mean a penalty shoot out. Mahmoud a-Sarsak, seen above and with his team in Rafeah, southern Gaza, is in danger of death after nearly ninety days on hunger strike in an Israeli prison.

The 25-year old Palestinian who started kicking a ball in Rafeah refugee camp and made it to his country's national side, has been held for three years without trial under the Israelis' Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law of 2002.

A-Sarsak was arrested on 22 July 2009 at the Erez crossing on his way to join the Balata soccer club team in Nablus. Since being arrested, a-Sarsak has not been allowed to speak with his family as the ISK prohibits security prisoners from using the telephone, and a-Sarsak’s family has not been able to visit as Israel has completely prohibited family visits for all prisoners from the Gaza Strip. As the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem reports:

Kamel a-Sarsak, Mahmoud’s father, told B’Tselem: "As time goes by, we worry more and more about Mahmoud's emotional state and his health. We know only what we hear from the media. They arrested Mahmoud arbitrarily as a "combatant." Mahmoud is just a soccer player. He plays on the national soccer team and even played in games overseas. He also used to help his brother 'Imad who sells vegetables at the market, and was a third-year student in computers at the Al-Quds Open University. His mother and I are very sad and worried about him because of the hunger strike. In April, his mother was hospitalized due to tension and stress she is experiencing."

In the past Israel has relied heavily on the British Mandate's 1945 Emergency Laws, but whereas before it could hold people without trial under an administrative detention order, which lasted for a maximum of six months before it had to be renewed, the Unlawful Combatants Law ennables the authorities to detain someone for an indefinite period. The law does mandate a legal review of the detention order every six months, but the burden of proof regarding the level of danger posed by the prisoner is shifted from the State to the prisoner, who must prove they are not dangerous. Yet the prisoners are not informed of the charges against them and as such are unable to refute them.

B;Tselem says:

"The Internment of Unlawful Combatants Law of 2002 under which A-Sarsak is imprisoned does not comport with international law, is unconstitutional, and is in any event unnecessary, since there are other statutory frameworks under which the persons to which the Law relates can be held in custody, and which infringe their human rights to a lesser extent. As such, B’Tselem has called for the repeal of the Illegal Combatants Law. B’Tselem furthermore demands that A-Sarsak be released or charged and given a fair trial".

After repeated pleas for independent doctors to see Mahmoud Sarsak, which the Israeli prison service refused, doctors from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) were finally allowed to see him and fellow hunger striker Akram Rikhawi on Wednesday, June 6.

Following this visit, the PHR-Israel doctor reported that Mahmoud has experienced extreme loss of muscle tissue and drastic weight loss. He has lost 33 percent of his body weight, from an original weight of 76 kilos down to his present weight of 51 kilos. He also suffers from frequent incidents of fainting and loss of consciousness, in addition to lapses in memory. The doctor further reported that Mahmoud is in danger of pulse disruptions (arrhythmias) that are endangering his life.

PHR-Israel’s independent doctor strongly recommended that Mahmoud should be immediately transferred to a hospital, as they are at immediate risk of death. These recommendations were given directly to the Israeli Prison Service doctor. Contrary to medical ethics and professional standards, the prison service refused the request of the independent doctor to go over the full medical files of Mahmoud.

Physicians for Human Rights issued a joint statement with the Council of Palestinian Human Rights organisations:

There have been demonstrations of support for the hunger strikers outside Ramleh prison and in many other places. In Nablus, Palestinian youths played a football match wearing handcuffs to dramatise the case.

On his Electromic Intifada website in the United States, Ali Abumineh notes:

"Despite his long struggle and desperate plight, there has been virtually no international media coverage of Sarsak’s case. An exception was an interview with his father last week on the BBC World Service’s program World Football.

World Football noted that the Israeli government ignored its requests for interviews about Sarsak’s situation".

London campaigners have held protests, and some held a banner urging that UEFA move its under-19s championship from Israel next year. Activists are discussing a demonstration tomorrow.

Monday 11 June
Provisional time: 3-5pm
Provisional venue: Department of Culture, Media and Sport, 2-4 Cockspur Street London SW1Y 5DH [near Trafalgar Square]

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once famously said:
'Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.'

But Palestinian footballer Mahmoud a-Sarsak is risking his life for his freedom and that of his people, and there is nothing more important than that.

And the case of the legless "security threat"

In a marked, welcome change from the scandalous events a few years ago when a Palestinian under-19 soccer team invited to Britain for training sessions and fixtures were denied visas to come here, Britain's official representative in Jerusalem has said he looks forward to Palestinians coming for the London Olympics. UK Consul General Sir Vincent Feanheld a reception and press conference for the Palestinian athletes, including paralympics competitors, in April, telling them:

"We are delighted and proud to support today’s events and Palestine’s sportsmen and women who will be competing in London.

"In just 100 days from now (27 July) the world will be watching as the opening ceremony sets the stage for the greatest show on earth: the Olympic and Paralympics Games in London. There, the Palestinian flag will fly alongside the flags of every other participating nation. The Palestinian Olympic and Paralympics athletes have overcome unique obstacles to participate in the London games and have demonstrated an inspiring unity of purpose, overcoming the difficulty of division that we all hope ends soon so that Gaza and West Bank can become one.

Promising the Palestinians a warm welcome in London, Sir Vincent went on to say:
"We strongly hope that a negotiated solution between Palestine and Israel will enable Palestine to one day compete in the Olympics as a full member of the community of nations - enabling Palestinian athletes to compete as their competitors do under the name of their State".

But when it comes to creating obstacles, the Israeli authorities are relentless. As an Associated Press reporter discovered:

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel has barred a paralyzed Palestinian athlete who lives in Gaza from an Olympics celebration sponsored by the British government. Khamis Zakout says the British Consulate in Jerusalem invited him and five fellow athletes on the Palestinian para-Olympics team to a pre-Olympics celebration in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. He says he was the only one banned from attending.

The Israeli military says Zakout was barred for security reasons. The Shin Bet internal security service had no immediate comment. The 47-year-old Zakout says he has no security record and worked in Israel before his legs were paralyzed in a work accident there in 1992.

Zakout competes in the javelin and shot put. He plans to travel from Gaza by way of Egypt to attend the London Olympics.

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