x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

No playing field, much less a level one, for Palestinians

A Palestinian athlete, wrongfully imprisoned, scored a big "win" by using a hunger strike to shame Israel into releasing him.

The peerless Andrés Iniesta spearheading Spain's historic Euro 2012 triumph. Andrea Pirlo's equally wonderful individual performances in that tournament. Or even Didier Drogba's immense display in Chelsea's Champions League victory.

But none come close. The most significant personal achievement by a footballer this summer belongs to a player few have ever heard of.

On July 22, 2009, Palestinian international footballer Mahmoud Sarsak left his home in Gaza for the West Bank to join his new team, Balata Youth, for a league match.

He didn't get far; at a security crossing, he was arrested by Israeli forces. Sarsak, like hundreds of other Palestinians, was accused of "terrorist" activities and jailed under the internationally illegal Unlawful Combatant Law, which allows Israel to detain individuals indefinitely without charge or trial. His jail term was renewed six times, every six months.

Yesterday, to hero's welcome, Sarsak was released, having last month agreed to end a three-month hunger strike in exchange for his freedom. The strike was one of the longest by a Palestinian prisoner; he lost nearly half his normal weight.

Sarsak's ordeal moved a group of footballers, led by Eric Cantona, and other international figures like Ken Loach and Noam Chomsky to demand his release. In a letter to UEFA president Michel Platini, Cantona called for Israel to be subjected to the same scrutiny that Euro 2012 hosts Poland and Ukraine faced recently over racism.

"Why are these same groups silent when Israel is to host the UEFA Under 21s competition in 2013?" the letter said. "Racism, human rights abuses and gross violations of international law are daily occurrences in that country," it went on.

The Palestinian Football Union Association had also, somewhat optimistically, called on UEFA to bar Israel from hosting that event. There is little chance of that happening; UEFA, like its big brother Fifa, barely pressured Israel, only expressing the usual "concern".

As ever, in sports, as in politics, there is one law for Israel and another for everyone else.

When, in February 2009, Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was initially refused a visa to participate in the Dubai Women's Tennis Championship, there was uproar in the tennis community. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) even threatened to pull the tournament from Dubai. Politics and sports, after all, should never mix. Ultimately, she was allowed to play.

But the indignation shown by the WTA then is rarely, if ever, extended to Palestinian athletes by sporting associations or, shamefully, the world's media. Palestinians have rarely been afforded a level playing field, or indeed, any playing field at all.

Travel restrictions mean that footballers in Gaza and the West Bank often are often unable to attend training sessions. Many Palestinian footballers have, like Sarsak, been arrested. International matches involving Palestine have been abandoned several times, Israel refusing to grant players exit visas.

When, in 2007, Palestine was unable to field a team against Singapore in a qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup, Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) refused to reschedule the match, and awarded Singapore a 3-0 walkover win.

Sadly, such stories are common, and are told in two excellent documentaries: Goal Dreams, by Maya Sanbar and Jeffrey Saunders, about the Palestinians' 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign; and Women in the Stadium by Sawsan Qaoud, highlighting the struggles of the Bethlehem-based Palestinian Women's national football team.

Even these injustices pale in comparison to Sarsak's tragedy. At 25, his body is ravaged, and he is unlikely to regain full health again, never mind play football.

But his victory transcends football. He has shown, yet again, the power of peaceful resistance.

Some triumphs are worth more than cups and medals.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_