Mahmoud Sarsak, the iconic Palestinian soccer star who was thrust into international fame after starving himself to protest his illegal imprisonment, is currently touring the UK campaigning for a boycott of the European Under-21 Championship. Sarsak has one message; the UEFA is wrong to allow Israel to host the tournament, which is now underway.
Protesting outside the UEFA Congress in London, speaking at public meetings and cafes, Sarsak is telling his story. CNN‘s article begins with a dramatic statement, “Mahmoud Sarsak is twice the man he used to be,” then cuts to his boyhood dream, growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza:
“It runs through the family blood. All of my brothers played,” he says.
“When I was growing up I looked up to Palestinian players. We didn’t have TV so we didn’t know anything of any international players. We looked up to them because they were so confident and happy. They made people smile. They brought spirit and life into the destructive places we were living in. That’s what I wanted to do. Put smiles onto people’s faces in such a hard place to live.”
It soon became clear that Sarsak had talent. At 14 he became the youngest player to represent the Rafah soccer team, and was called up for an international tournament in Norway. Soon he came to the attention of the Palestinian national team, which has been recognized by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, for more than 15 years.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that Sarsak was offered a professional contract with a team in the West Bank. Finally he managed to secure the hard-to-come-by permit required by Palestinians to leave Gaza.
“I was delighted,” Sarsak recalls of the day he left his home.
“Through football I would be able to help my family survive. I was on my way to establishing myself as an independent person. Building a home, building a family. The day before I traveled, all my friends came and celebrated. Everyone was delighted.”
CNN’s article recounts Mahmoud Sarsak’s harrowing experience: picked up and detained without charge, on the very cusp of his achievement, and held under the draconian Israeli military system of administrative detention, illegal under international law, for 3 years of harsh sometimes tortuous imprisonment.
A child whose talents were recognized early on, whose spirit and beauty brought joy to the hearts of Palestinians. In many many ways Mahmoud Sarsak’s story and his dream reminds me very much of other famous, young, talented, charismatic Palestinians thrust into international spotlight.
The acclaimed Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh is still languishing in jail. Award winning photo journalist Mohammad al-Azza was shot in the face while doing his job. Broadcast Journalist Musab Shawer Al-Tamimi, and the list goes on and on and on. Like the singer Mohammed Assaf, who made his way to fame before the occupier had a chance to crush him.
Israel targets children, sometimes on their way to school in the morning, often blighting their lives from their teens on. Those lucky enough to make it to their twenties, who are vocal about their conditions, are a threat to Israel’s national security– especially if they are successful.
The two-week tournament began Wednesday in Israel. Kudos to CNN for covering Sarsak’s UK tour and for asking Should soccer boycott Israel’s European Championship?
You be the judge:
“UEFA should not allow Israel to use a prestigious football occasion to whitewash its racist denial of Palestinian rights and its illegal occupation of Palestinian land.”
But, for some of those campaigning for a boycott of the tournament, they say the most damning evidence comes from Sarsak’s own experiences while in detention.
“This (hunger strike) was the only way left to achieve my liberation,” he claims. “The Israelis killed my hope, killed my dreams, killed everything. It was either to live in dignity or be buried underground.”