Growing up in Al Shabora refugee camp, Mahmoud Sarsak recalls that his only toy was a frayed, well-used soccer ball. When repairs were needed, he assembled haphazard patches and inflated the ball with balloons, because he knew there was no money for a new ball. Sarsak’s childhood scrimmages grew into a passionate dedication to the sport, which eventually took him to a career with the Palestinian national team. His visibility within Palestinian football has been a personal source of pride and honor, but the spotlight of national sports has also made Sarsak the focus of heightened violence from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
In 2009, while traveling from Gaza to the West Bank to join his new football team, Israeli authorities detained Sarsak at the Erez Crossing checkpoint. Checkpoints — large and often dangerous blockades that regulate Palestinian mobility — frequently become sites of humiliation, sexual harassment and violence. After detention at the checkpoint, Israeli authorities brought Sarsak to jail; in direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Sarsak spent the next three years in Israeli prisons without a trial or official charges. During his internment, he underwent myriad forms of torture, isolation, and violence. In protest, he began a hunger strike that lasted for three months and eventually — under pressure from the international community — provoked his release in July 2012. Then-FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, and UEFA president Michel Platini, were among the principal voices motivating Sarsak’s release, illustrating the immense influence that athletic authorities hold in regards to rectifying human rights abuses in nations with an interest in competing.
Synecdochically, football teams around the world have become the flagships of national pride; defeats tremor through the populace, and country spirits sail on victories. After long-awaited affirmation, FIFA’s 1998 recognition of the Palestinian national team buoyed pride and hope in a people suffering from decades of a violent occupation. Yet, the excitement has been stifled, as soccer has become another front through which Israeli forces regulate, immobilize and subjugate Palestinians through detention, harassment and increased surveillance of soccer players and officials. As journalist David Zirin wrote, “If you degrade the national team, you degrade the idea that there could ever be a nation:” attacks on Palestinian soccer have emerged as a potent force in the Israeli corrosion of a future Palestinian state.
Mahmoud Sarsak — incarcerated and inflicted with violence without trial, jury or reasonable evidence — now speaks out against the discrimination and brutality that sports players in the West Bank and Gaza undergo. Sarsak’s colleague, Zakaria Issa, was similarly imprisoned for alleged but unsubstantiated accusations of connections to Hamas. Issa was sentenced to 16 years in prison, where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer but denied treatment. After nine months of his sentence, Israeli authorities released him, but without medical attention the cancer had grown, and Issa died shortly after his release. These instances of medical negligence, torture and abuse, and denial of a fair trial outline several human rights violations that detained Palestinian athletes endure.
Outside of prisons, soccer players and citizens face constant persecution at checkpoints. Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, two teenage soccer players, were shot in the feet by IDF while attempting to pass through a checkpoint on their walk home from soccer practice in 2014. After opening gunfire without warning, the Israeli authorities beat them and chased them with police dogs, exacerbating their injuries and terror. Halabiya and Jawhar were initially sent to a hospital in Ramallah, but later went to Jordan where they could access better medical services than in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. While receiving treatment, doctors said that their sustained injuries (including seven bullets in Jawhar’s left foot alone) would most likely prevent them from ever playing soccer again.
In addition to checkpoints, warfare surrounds, limits and attempts to eradicate the possibility of Palestinian soccer. Israeli Defense Forces have bombed the Palestine Stadium to demolition twice during the last decade (in 2006 and again in 2012). FIFA pledged funds to reconstruct the stadium both times, asserting that the attacks had been waged unreasonably. Three players from the Palestinian National Team were among the 2,200 Palestinians who perished in the siege on Gaza during the summer of 2014. The siege also brought about the death of four young boys playing soccer on a Gaza beach, who were murdered in an Israeli missile attack that left their young bodies strewn across the sand.
Compounding the devastating effects of warfare, the insidious state-surveillance, discrimination and violence of the ever-present occupation riddle players’ lives. Checkpoints obstruct access to fields, scrimmages, healthcare resources, food and fresh water, as well as dehumanize players under a generalized discriminatory assumption that they are “security threats” that must be monitored and regulated. Israeli authorities have denied many players travel visas, effectually eliminating them from participation in international competitions. Palestinian Football Association headquarters have been raided and interrogated by IDF. As the occupation dispossesses land and livelihoods of Palestinians, it has devastated local economies and infrastructures; therefore, lack of funding for Palestinian soccer has diminished opportunities, rank and esteem on the world field.
FIFA has recognized and even acted against some of the human rights abuses the Israeli occupation of Palestine has inflicted on soccer players. Inspired by the successful sports boycotts in South Africa that figured centrally in the dismantling of apartheid, activists around the world have pressured FIFA to uphold their fundamental statutes against discrimination and political oppression in regards to Israel. Article 3 of FIFA’s statutes states discrimination based on race, skin color, ethnicity, national or social origin (among other traits) “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion” of the oppressor state. However, after hearing testimonies from Palestinian soccer players and fans who cited the prejudiced violence imbued in a state fractured by stratified classes of citizenship, FIFA executives decided against suspending Israel in a May 2015 vote. David Zirin contrasted the lack of accountability for justice in Palestine with the godlike respect footballers in other nations receive: “Just imagine if members of Spain’s top-flight World Cup team had been jailed, shot or killed by another country and imagine the international media outrage that would ensue.”
Activists, discouraged by FIFA’s decision, assert that while FIFA may shirk its responsibility to guarantee justice for its Palestinian constituents, FIFA “cannot delay the growth of the international boycott of Israel or prevent the continued isolation of Israel because of its human rights abuses and war crimes against the Palestinian people.” Across the globe, concerned soccer players and fans have joined with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, and sports-related civil rights organizations such as Red Card Israeli Racism, calling for athletic authorities to deliver justice against the Israeli apartheid through sports diplomacy. Until we see an occupation dismantled, a system of violence disrupted, and a militarized dispossession of rights terminated, we must continue to pressure FIFA to answer, do Palestinian lives matter?
Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected] Triple Jump appears alternate Mondays this semester.