RAFAH: In 2009, Mahmud Sarsak set out from Gaza to sign on with a West Bank football team, but what he thought was the start of a dream career quickly spiralled into a nightmare.
Three years later, the young athlete is lying in a bed in an Israeli prison clinic after spending more than 80 days without eating in protest at his being held without charge.
With his case drawing more and more attention, the Israel Prison Authority on Monday told AFP that Sarsak had ended his strike.
But the Ramallah-based Palestinian Prisoners’ Club denied the claim, as did his family, although his lawyer Mohammed Jabarin admitted Sarsak was “drinking milk” in a move which he said did not amount to breaking the strike.
Sarsak, 25, was born in Gaza and dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. As a teenager, he played several times for the Palestinian national team in Europe and the Middle East, attracting favourable attention from coaches.
So when he set out for the West Bank on July 22, 2009, he felt he had a promising career ahead of him.
But he never even got there.
As he tried to pass the Erez crossing into Israel, Sarsak was arrested and has been held ever since under Israel’s so-called unlawful ‘combatants law,’ which allows suspects to be held without charge under a procedure similar to administrative detention.
Israeli officials have called Sarsak an “Islamic Jihad terrorist who planned attacks and bombings,” but have not made public any charges or evidence against him.
“They want to kill my Mahmud,” says his mother Umm al-Abed, sitting outside a solidarity tent by International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters in Gaza City. “Why isn’t the world doing anything?”
Sarsak began his hunger strike on March 23 as a wave of similar protests swept through the population of Palestinians being held in Israeli jails.
Most of the prisoners sought improved conditions, including visits from relatives living in Gaza, greater access to lawyers and an end to solitary confinement.
But many, including Sarsak, also sought an end to Israel’s use of administrative detention, a practice under which military courts can order individuals held without charge for six-month periods.
Each detention order is renewable indefinitely, and based on secret evidence which the individual and even his lawyer are often unable to see.
Sarsak’s detention has been renewed multiple times since he was first arrested.
“We call on all the Arab and European clubs to save a footballer’s life. He could die at any minute,” his brother Imad told AFP.
Imad Sarsak says the family has no idea why Israel is holding Mahmud, who was in his third year of a computer programming degree when he was arrested.
“They want to kill his dream as a footballer who just started his professional career,” he said. “We don’t know why they are still holding him without charge. He only cares about football and has nothing to do with politics.”
In the southern city of Rafah, a large picture of Sarsak hangs in the Khadamat club, where he once played.
Jamal Abu Amira, head of Khadamat’s sports committee, said he was “shocked” at Israel’s apparent indifference to respond to pressure from activists over Sarsak’s plight.
“We call on all football clubs in the world to show solidarity with Mahmud,” he told AFP. “This up-and-coming player has the right to freedom because there is no reason for holding him and no charges against him.”
Although the long-term hunger strike by Sarsak and six others was later joined by more than 1,500 others, the mass fast drew to a close on May 14 after the prisoners reached an agreement with Israel to improve their conditions.
The deal did not include an end to administrative detention, but an understanding that prisoners would be released when their current stint of detention expired – unless there was new evidence against them.
Despite a brief break on May 14, Sarsak quickly resumed his fast, insisting he will not stop until he receives a written guarantee that he will be released in July, a lawyer for the Palestinian prisoners ministry says.
“Mahmud refuses to stop his hunger strike in exchange for oral promises to release him on July 12, he wants written promises,” Fadi Obeidat said in a statement.
Since late May, Sarsak has been receiving vitamins and sugar to keep him alive, but fears about his health have grown.
None of his family have been able to visit him, and his 70-year-old father Kamal, who just suffered a heart attack, worries he may never see his son again.
“I want to see my son alive before I die,” he says.