Mahmoud Sarsak standing amongst the ruins of Palestine Football Stadium in Gaza City, used by the National Team. This was his first visit there since it was bombed by the Israelis on the 19th November 2012. It was hit with 12 bombs destroying much of the stadium during Operation Pillar of Cloud.
On Wednesday 23rd of January I with other members of our group had the pleasure and honour to meet Mahmoud Sarsak in our appartment. He is a slight, quietly spoken young man, with a gentle manner and his good humour and patience with our questioning betray none of the pain he has suffered over the last 3 and a half years. When he begins to speak about his experience of imprisonment he tells his story with a matter of fact, quiet sincerity that is striking and makes the horror of his experience all the more shocking.
Mahmoud was 21 years old, at the start of a playing career which had already seen him being recognised as one of the best young prospects in Palestine, already a regular for the Palestinian National side. He had an invitation to play for a football team in Nablus in the West Bank. This meant that he had to ask for permission from the Israelis to cross from Gaza through Erez crossing into Israel in order to travel on to the West Bank. This did not worry him as it was a trip he had already done twice before and when he recieved his permission he went to the crossing looking forward to the opportunity of playing in Nablus. However when he got to Erez at 9am on the 22nd July 2009 his whole world changed, instead of being allowed to cross he was arrested and taken to a Police Station, from here his family were called and informed that he was being taken to Ashkelon Jail.
He was made to take off his clothes and change into overalls, an ‘under investigation uniform’. He describes how for the first 18 days he was tied to a chair with his eyes covered, the only times he was untied was when he was given food and they untied his hands or when he was allowed to go to the toilet when his legs were untied. He explains that during this time he was kept awake, not fed properly and questioned daily, every 4 days he was taken to a court where a judge gave permission for him to be held for a further 4 days. This treatment he says ‘wasn’t so bad’ in comparison with what was to come although I think that most people would call it torture.
At the end of that 18 days he was taken to a Military Jail in the South where he was kept for 6 days and his treatment became much worse. He was beaten regularly and was put in what he described as a fridge, he also had very hot and very cold water put under his feet. During all of this time in both places he was questioned, his interrogators were wanting him to say that he had been involved in ‘activities against Israel’. He didn’t understand what they meant by this, he was a footballer, he had not been involved in anything else and so refused to make things up to make his interrogators happy. He had no idea why he had been arrested.
At the end of these 6 days he was taken back to a civilian jail for another 11 days where suddenly things got much better. He was fed and allowed to sleep properly, his captors became very friendly offering him his freedom, a new house, a salary, a car, access to proper training facilities to help his playing career and foreign travel. All he had to do was become a collaborator. He refused, which angered his Israeli Interrogators and they began to threaten him again. They told him that they would burn his family home down, attack his family and kill his brothers. Despite the pressures upon him and his ordeal so far, he continued to refuse to collaborate.
Except for short visits to court when his lawyer was present, during this initial 35 days of incarceration he had absolutely no contact with anyone but his jailors and interrogators. His lawyer told him that he was going to be all right, the court had said he was going to be released. Instead he was told by a Military Officer that he was now being held under ‘The Law of An Illegal Fighter’ and that they no longer needed to go to court to ask permission to keep him. He was then taken to Kitseot Jail near Bersheva where at least he could see other prisoners and his time of interrogation was over. He asked the other prisoners what this ‘Law of an Illegal Fighter’ meant but none of them had ever heard of it. When he was finally allowed access to his lawyer and was able to ask him he was told that it was a law that the Israeli authorities use when they have nothing against you but they want to hold onto you. He then asked his lawyer what rights he had under this law and was told that he had none, he could now be held in jail for as long as the Israeli Military wanted to keep him.
Mahmoud was the first Palestinian who had been held under this law, the only other people he knows of who had previously been held under it were 2 Hizbollah members from Lebanon who were arrested in 1982. He thinks that because he had no rights he was put in a cell which was 2m x 1m for his time in Kitseot, this cell had only a matress and toilet in it and he developed chest, skin and back problems while there. He was not taken to a hospital while there, and was only seen briefly by a prison doctor for these problems. He was allowed out of his cell for 1 hour a day for exercise with his fellow prisoners when he played football with them.
On the 22nd of February 2010 Mahmoud was taken to Tel Aviv for a court hearing to extend his imprisonment and then to another court hearing for the decision in Jerusalem two weeks later. The journey to court and between jails is in what the prisoners call a ‘post bus’ which is metal bus with steel compartments in which you are jostled and hit off the steel walls. He knew before he was taken to the second hearing that he was going to be held for another six months. After this hearing he was also barred from playing football with his fellow prisoners for that precious hour in the mornings and was told that this was due to his back being too bad. At this time they also started to move him between prisons every 2 months and he was still taken to court every 6 months in order to have his stay in prison extended.
On the 23rd of August 2011 he was told that he was going to be released, he was happy and said goodbye to the other prisoners. He was taken by ‘post bus’ to Erez, his hands and legs were not tied as they usually were, the window was open and when he got there they opened the door of the prison van and the guards moved away talking among themselves. He stayed where he was as he didn’t know what was happening and he didn’t want to be shot if they thought he was trying to escape. He called to the guards to ask what was happening and they told him they were taking him back to jail, he wasn’t being released. He was taken to a different jail for 2 weeks with only the clothes he had on when they took him to Erez. He said that he was later told about another prisoner who had been taken to Erez and left in an open ‘post bus’ with his legs untied in the same way. He had gone to the door to look out and been instantly shot in the leg and accused of trying to escape. After this 2 week period he was taken back to the jail he had originally been in when first imprisoned, here his other clothes and small number of belongings were finally brought to him.
When he was taken to this jail he was given another 6 months but his lawyer was promised that he would be released when this time ended on the 23rd of February 2012. The 23rd of February came and went, 10 days after this he was taken back to court, he had decided that this time if he wasn’t released he would go on hunger strike and stay on hunger strike until they promised in writing that he would be released. So when he was told that he was going to be imprisoned for another 6 months he prepared himself for 10 days, eating less each day and gradually reducing his physical activity. On the 15th of March 2012 he started his hunger strike. He only took water and sometimes a little salt in order to prevent his stomach from beginning to rot.
7 days after he started they began to move him from jail to jail before putting him in Nafha Jail which meant he was put in with the Israeli criminal population. Then he was put into isolation for a spell followed by hospital in Bersheva for 2 days tied to his bed then back to Nafha. From here he was sent to Eshel jail where he was put in isolation again and became very sick. This time they wouldn’t take him to hospital but would only allow him to see the Doctor in Eshel. After 35 days of this the Doctor in Eshel refused to continue to be responsible for him and he was taken to the Prison hospital in Ramle jail where he was with another 5 Palestinian prisoners who were also on hunger strike. He refused treatment here and was put back into isolation, this time his isolation cell had no windows so he was in darkness. After 47 days on hunger strike he bagan to have serious problems with his stomach, he couldn’t even drink water without vomiting. First white then black then brown vomit. They took him back to Ramle Prison hospital then and gave him antibiotics.
Along with the other hunger strikers he was asked regularly to break his hunger strike, on the 15th of May he was told that if he would break his hunger strike he would be released on the 23rd of August and the other hunger strikers were also told that they would have their demands met if they broke theirs. 3 of them accepted but along with 1 of the others Akram Al Rihawy he refused, he had heard promises of release before and he insisted that he have the promise in writing signed by a senior Judge and a Minister from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior. He was also told that he would not be allowed to return to Gaza, he had to choose between Germany, France or Norway which he also refused to accept. At this time he finally began to get International Committee of the Red Cross visits twice a week and he was asked daily to break his hunger strike, he continued to refuse until he got it in writing that he would be released back to Gaza and that he would be properly monitored by a committee of doctors when he started eating again.
Eventually on the 18th of June 2012 on the 96th day of his hunger strike a Minister from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior came to see him with the signed paper that he had been asking for stating in writing that he would be released on the 20th of July 2012. The Minister asked him if he would now please give up his hunger strike and he agreed. The Minister asked him to drink a glass of milk in front of him so that he could confirm and report that he had indeed broken his hunger strike which he did alathough he immediately vomited this back up. His stomach couldn’t cope even with milk after such a long time with no more than water going into it. He said that even though his stomach rejected this cup of milk his whole body felt as though it had drunk and felt relieved.
For 14 days he had to build up to eating again with first intravenous vitamins and nutrition, followed by nutritional drinks, before finally eating his first bit of bread after this 14 day period, which he still vomited back up. During the time of his hunger strike he was only allowed 2 visits from his lawyer, on the 40th day and on the last day. I asked if he was allowed any visits from his family during his time in jail. He replied that because he was given no rights under the ‘Law of An Illegal fighter’ he was not only denied visits from family but was not even allowed the 6 monthly letters delivered to his fellow prisoners by the Red Cross. He wasn’t able to write to them either, not even one short note.
At no time during Mahmoud’s entire incarceration was he actually accused of anything other than being asked to admit to the vague term ‘activities against Israel’ and he was never charged with anything. He was very clear that he had no idea why he was arrested. He was a footballer. The court appearances he attended were simply formalities under Military Law which say that every 6 months any detention order must be renewed.
All Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who are arrested by Israel are dealt with under Military Law not Israeli Criminal Law and therefore it is not necessary for Israel to ever bring charges against them. Many who are prosecuted are those who have signed false confessions under torture and are not able to retract them afterwards. Mahmoud’s case was slightly worse than normal Military law, under which there are a few rights which at least give some protection in prison. Mahmoud had none of these rights under this so called ‘Law of an Illegal Fighter’ by which he was held.
I asked Mahmoud if he was back in training for football and if he thought that it would be possible for him to return to his playing career. He said that finally he had managed to attend 3 training sessions and was hoping to be able to return to the team at some point in the future once he was back to full fitness. I sincerely wish him luck with this and hope that he will reach that stage very soon.
This has to be one of the clearest examples of why the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) campaign should be supported by everyone and why Israel should be barred from participating in International Sporting events. Currently the 2013 UEFA U-21 Championship is scheduled to be played in Israel. How can this be allowed when they can treat a Palestinian International Player like this? Not to mention that they bombed the only 2 football pitches in Gaza during Operation Pillar of Cloud as well as destroying many local playing areas in the West Bank over the years. I saw several during my visit there in 2004 including one in Ramallah which had been bulldozed.
Mahmoud told us that the other prisoner who had stayed on hunger strike with him, Akram Al Rihawy, had spent his whole sentence in hospital due to his medical problems. His reason for being on hunger strike was not for release but for proper medical treatment. He stopped his hunger strike after being told that he was going to be released on Wednesday the 23rd of January 2013. Yesterday, on the 25th of January 2013 we were told that he was not released as promised and that he is now back on hunger strike.
To join the campaign against Israel hosting the 2013 UEFA U-21 Championship go to the following link and get involved: http://redcardapartheid.weebly.com/
For the Scottish readers of this article, I showed the film Trish from maryhill made of the protest at the Womens international to Mahmoud. His comment was ‘beautiful’ with a wide grin of appreciation and amazement.
By Theresa in Gaza