Strikes, soccer and sanctions: an interview with Mahmoud Sarsak

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Mahmoud Sarsak is a professional footballer who was arrested in 2009 and imprisoned in Israel for three years without charge. In April 2012 he joined the coordinated hunger strikes by Palestinian political prisoners. Riya Al'Sanah and Estelle Cooch interviewed him for Socialist Review.


Can you explain a bit about who you are and what you have been part of?

My name is Mahmoud Kemal Sarsak. I'm 26 years old and I was previously a player in the national Palestinian football team and I am now a released Palestinian prisoner. I was arrested on 22 July 2009 while travelling to join my new club at the time - Balata Youth in the West Bank. The Israeli secret services said they did not have enough evidence to send me to trial so I was held unlawfully for three years without charge.

What role does football play in Palestinian society and what are the restrictions on it?

Football is an important part of the culture of the Palestinian people. Football and sport in general plays a central role in Palestinian life and in sending messages - both political and social.

The obstacles that Israel puts in front of Palestinian players are numerous. They stem, of course, from the apartheid system that separates the whole of Palestinian society. It is virtually impossible for players to even cross from one of the occupied territories to the other. There is a ban on Palestinian players from the Gaza strip and from the Diaspora joining the national team in the West Bank when it plays at home. The Israelis continually target and arrest players. There is a ban on Arab teams (and other teams) from coming to compete with Palestinian teams in Palestine itself. There is a ban on football figures, coaches or academics coming to train players in the West Bank.

And the other restriction is the destruction of sports infrastructure such as the bombing of football stadiums. The Palestine Stadium in Gaza City has been bombed twice by the Israelis.

How did you end up taking part in the hunger strike?

There was no coordination in the hunger strike and so I joined it on an individual basis. I had been in prison for three years and had never been charged, never been in court and I had never seen a lawyer. And so when the coordinated action began on the 17 April 2012 I'd already been on hunger strike for 40 days.

What are the next steps for the campaign?

My release, a year ago now, on 10 July 2012 was not only a result of resilience (as is the release of any prisoner) but it was also a result of the huge pressure from outside the Israeli state. Pressure came both internationally and from inside Palestine. Its true many prisoners remain and there needs to be coordinated action and strategy to address how we gain their freedom. Now Palestine is recognised as a state in the UN we can go to the International Court of Justice to demand the release of Palestinian political prisoners in coordination with international treaties. There needs to be a coordinated strategy that places the Palestinian prisoners at its heart in demanding both better treatment and their immediate release.

Do you see the hunger strike as part of a growing grassroots movement in Palestine, and what is the impact of the Arab spring on that?

Our starting point has to be that Palestinians do not go to prison as individuals, they go to prison for the Palestinian cause of liberation. The prisoners are a pillar of society, and because people know they have gone to prison for the cause, organising solidarity is not too difficult.

Everyone in Palestinian society knows someone who is or has been in prison. They don't always need the guidance of political leadership or organisations; they come out as a political duty. The link between us and the Arab countries is complex because of the nature of our struggle. The Arab states have sovereignty, whereas Palestine is under occupation. That means the recognition of Palestine as a state makes all forms of liberation - be it grassroots struggle or via political movements - legitimate.

Who are your sporting inspirations?

First, when you choose a hero you choose them on the basis of their method or their struggle, so the first for me is our Prophet.

But in sport, I would choose the footballer Frederic Kanouté who, after scoring a goal in January 2009 while the Israeli army was bombarding Gaza, lifted his shirt to reveal a black shirt underneath emblazoned with the word "Palestine". Also the Egyptian striker Mohamed Aboutrika, who did the same thing in protest to the blockade of Gaza in 2008. They are politically conscious players who use sport to spread awareness.

What are the dynamics like in prison?

Supposedly prisons are there to alter people's behaviour and send them back out into society, but in Israel, prisons are there to kill Palestinians. Israel uses the prison as a tool to crush people politically, ideologically, intellectually and socially.

But with the resilience of Palestinian people, prison has become an academy, a university almost. It is a place where Palestinians discuss and debate different topics - from what is happening in the news, to the dynamics of Palestinian society and the politics of the Arab Spring. There is a strong emphasis on reading, writing and having meeting groups. So even in prison there is a continuous process of resistance. So when new people came in we made an effort to encourage them to study, to develop themselves to be teachers and to go into academia. We have turned prison into the opposite of what Israel wants it to be.

Can you talk a bit about the BDS movement and its role?

When Palestinians made the call for BDS back in 2005 it had limited supporters but now it has grown and has tens of thousands of supporters worldwide. Today, Israel is more worried about BDS because it taints its international legitimacy, probably more than any other means of resistance at the moment.

Initially with BDS the targets were small, but the targets are growing and it is hitting Israel harder and harder. I think we will see this continue, develop and become part of telling the truth about Israel's occupation and abuse of human rights. It can be the movement that brings an end to the Israeli regime.


There is a chapter about Mahmoud Sarsak's hunger strike in Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play, Michael Lavalette (ed), £ 9.99. Available from Bookmarks.