Mahmoud Sarsak: Palestinian football champion; hero in Israeli prisons
Mahmoud Sarsak relates to Al Mayadeen his story of captivity in Israeli prisons and the battle of empty stomachs that he engaged in.
Liberated Palestinian prisoner and former football player Mahmoud Sarsak, a hero of the battle of empty stomachs, visited Al Mayadeen offices where he recollected memories of his struggles, challenges, and determination.
Who is Mahmoud Sarsak?
Mahmoud Sarsak was born on January 20, 1987, in Al-Shaboura neighborhood, Rafah camp, in the Gaza Strip. He joined Rafah Sports Club when he was 8 years old.
He was chosen to represent the Palestinian national football team when he was at the young age of 14 years old, becoming the youngest player in the team.
Sarsak was arrested by Israeli occupation forces on July 22, 2009, after he was stopped at a military checkpoint while on his way to join the Balata Youth Sports Club in Nablus, the occupied West Bank. The young boy was arrested despite having obtained a passage permit from the occupation allowing him to enter the West Bank.
After withstanding a 96-day-long hunger strike in protest of his administrative detention, he was released on July 10, 2012, and he headed back to the Gaza Strip.
Revisiting years of captivity
In a friendly meeting with the Al Mayadeen family, Sarsak recounted the days of his captivity, hunger strike, and meeting prisoners who wound up as martyrs.
The liberated prisoner opened up about the sufferings he had endured while in captivity, which he describes as "systematic terrorism" that could go all the way to murder, psych ops, and destruction of morale.
He detailed how Palestinian prisoners are instantly robbed of their dignity upon their arrest, as they would be turned into a number the IOF gives them for identification instead of their names. The aim of the Israeli occupation is to make every prisoner feel like they are insignificant.
Sarsak also recounted how Palestinian prisoners turn into a mere number in health experiments, as well, whether upon being transferred to hospitals or during any other relevant practice.
For Sarsak, what really matters in the cause is not the name of a particular prisoner, rather the overall, comprehensive maltreatment of all Palestinian prisoners, from abuse to humiliation and persecution.
In this context, Sarsak highlighted the importance of the role of collective, individual, and institutional media when it comes to the Palestinian cause.
Sarsak went on to speak about special cases of some prisoners, highlighting the necessity of showcasing them and doing everything possible to attract public opinion to support them and stand in solidarity with them just as the Israeli enemy does with all its propaganda.
The Palestinian footballer also brought up the families of the prisoners and their role in supporting their children, bolstering their steadfastness, and keeping their cause alive in the collective consciousness of the Arab and Islamic worlds.
A football player who shook 'Israel' to its core
Mahmoud Sarsak spent three years in prison, and he is not ashamed to say that at times, he lost all hope of getting out, but he still regarded his captivity as a message to the world.
Sarsak said he was captured and classified as a prisoner of war just as the prisoners who were captured in South Lebanon, i.e., similar to Abdel Karim Obaid, Mustafa Al-Dirani, and martyr Samir Al-Kuntar. This means that the arrest decision is in the hands of the entity's president, and it constitutes an open-ended detention without a sentence.
On engaging in the battle of empty stomachs and open-ended hunger strikes, Sarsak said, "The prisoners in jail have nothing to fight with but their bodies," recalling his own experience in this context and recollecting how he benefited from the experience of his fellow prisoners who succeeded in attaining freedom.
The freed prisoner was deeply touched by this kind of challenge and struggle, and upon examining himself and his athletic body, he realized that this could help him in his hunger strike, and so it was.
Sarsak went on to explain that playing football helped him in his open-ended hunger strike, especially in the first period, which meant that he would lose a lot of weight, but his athletic body was an element of strength and an advantage in overcoming the difficulties of the first days.
After 96 days of a draining experience, Sarsak described his condition as a near-death experience, where he got into "clinical death", forcing the Israeli occupation to admit him to the hospital amid international pressure.
He stressed that his transfer was not out of sympathy and mercy but due to a threat from the International Federation of Football Associations, FIFA, to deny the Israeli occupation entity the ability to organize the Under-23 World Cup.
Sarsak further recounted that when other prisoners were taken to hospitals, it was more like being taken to "slaughterhouses" for experimental tests, injections, and sometimes even homicide.
Why did Sarsak refuse to attend the 2012 Real Madrid-Barcelona match?
Sarsak explained that football is the medium through which all people come together and unite away from their religious affiliations and beliefs. However, he highlighted to Al Mayadeen the importance of this sport in conveying messages, especially political and humanitarian ones, and said he was very well aware of the Israeli entity’s modus operandi in terms of polishing its image through sports washing.
In 2012, Sarsak, whose case went viral while he was in captivity, was invited by FC Barcelona to attend the El Clasico match against Real Madrid. Sarsak, a Barcelona fan, accepted the invitation.
However, after accepting the invitation, his phone did not stop ringing at night, with everyone telling him to watch the news. "Zionist soldier Gilad Shalit and Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak invited to watch El Clasico," the headlines read, in an attempt to whitewash Israeli occupation crimes. As a former prisoner who suffered in Israeli occupation prisons, Sarsak refused to attend the match in rejection of the Israeli occupation's "fake peace". On this matter, he said one could not draw a parallel between the victim and the perpetrator.
Sarsak also recalled his visit to Le Parc des Princes stadium in France, where he wanted to watch the Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain match in 2013. Back then, he raised the Palestinian flag in support of the Palestinian cause, even though he already knew that this act was prohibited in European stadiums, especially in France. This led to his arrest, and he was banned from the stadium. Sarsak also pointed to the intervention of the Zionist lobby in football to prevent any kind of support for Palestine in stadiums.
Mahmoud Sarsak was one of the thousands of prisoners who raised the banner of victory for Palestine and rejected humiliation, going on to become an icon in the Palestinian struggle for freedom through his acts of resistance.