By Julie Holm
“Palestine from Nakba to State” was the politicized title of the international football championship that took place in Palestine from May 15 to May 24. A friendly tournament hosted by Palestine, the championship was attended by 10 national teams from Asia and Africa: Mauritania, Tunisia, Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and of course Palestine. In the opening match, Palestine beat Vietnam in front of 10,000 fans and the trend continued as Palestine won the final against Tunisia, attended by 15,000 people.
President Mahmoud Abbas praised the success of the event and congratulated the winning Palestinian team. As he greeted all the guest teams and journalists, he stressed the importance of their visit. He emphasized that sports has managed to do what politics couldn’t – unite people. The participation of the other teams showed real support to the Palestinian people.
The victory, however, must have been bittersweet for the Palestinian national team. Even though the championship was visited by people, teams and journalists from all over the world, and had thousands of people attending the matches and even more following them on TV, someone was absent from the exciting games and the joyous celebration at the end.
Three years ago Mahmoud Sarsak was arrested at a checkpoint as he was leaving the Gaza Strip on his way to join his teammates in the Palestinian National Football team in the West Bank. Since that day, the 22nd of July 2009, the now 25-year old football player has been held in an Israeli prison without charge and without trial. His family and friends have not been permitted to see him. Imprisoned under the Israeli “illegal combatant” law, Sarsak’s detention has been continuously renewed every six months, without any reason given to him or his lawyer. On the 19th of March Mahmoud Sarsak began a hunger strike that has been going on for 74 consecutive days. All he asks for is fair and just treatment.
In football, any team not playing a fair game, using dirty tricks to get ahead, is condemned by the football community; they might even get penalized. Israel, however, is not playing football. The stakes in their “game” are much higher. They keep breaking international laws and conventions; they even break the deals they make themselves, as the one made with the hunger striking prisoners only weeks ago. The Geneva Convention clearly states that the transfer of occupied people to the territory of the occupier is illegal, yet Israel continues to do so with Palestinians they arrest and place in Israeli jails, where they are kept, sometimes without any charge or trial – like Sarsak; yet another breach of international laws and human rights. Israel however, is rarely penalized or reprimanded for their constant breach of international law. In fact, they are being awarded by getting to host the 2013 UEFA Under-21 Football Championship. One can only wonder if Israel will promote fair play at this event while they keep Palestinians who are not even given the chance of a fair trial, locked up in its prisons.
As Sarsak left Gaza that day three years ago, what was on his mind was playing football, the game, according to his family, with which he was obsessed. Now he is a player in a much larger game, a game that is not played for fun and is definitely not a friendly match. Still, Sarsak is fighting hard, as he used to when he played football, only this time he is fighting for his life. The rules he is used to in football – fair play being the most valued one of all –no longer apply. But still he, as many other Palestinians, keep on fighting, as they have no other choice.
President Mahmoud Abbas was right when he said that sports unites people. But Israel’s use of cheap tricks and its continuous breaking of the rules prevents Palestinians from uniting, in this case an ardent football player with his family and beloved team. It is about time the international community stops letting Israel play dirty.
Julie Holm is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at [email protected]