Time to show Israel the red card, says Palestinian footballer

There has been a sad catalogue of children falling victim to Israeli bullets and shells while playing football in the "wrong" place.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi
12 July 2013

As president of the world football federation FIFA, Sepp Blatter has put his name to many projects supporting the sport in Palestine, most recently inaugurating the Joseph Blatter Football Academy in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank last Sunday (July 7).

Touring Jordan, Palestine and Israel on July 6-10, he pledged to remove impediments to the movement of players, officials and equipment. This was the cue for Palestine Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub to assert that if Israel failed to respond, "we will ask next year that Israel should be expelled from FIFA." Israeli FA president Avi Luzon insisted every Palestinian player requesting a permit this year had received it. "I don't understand what the problem is," he said after meeting Blatter on Tuesday. 

As it worked out, Blatter's tour of Jordan and Israel/Palestine saw him in Israel on the first anniversary of the release from detention of Mahmoud Sarsak, a member of the Palestinian national squad who is intimately familiar with "what the problem is."


A young Palestinian holding up a red card as part of a protest during Israel’s hosting of the UEFA under-21 tournament in June.

Seized by Israeli security forces in July 2009 as he attempted to travel from his home in Gaza to join a new club in the West Bank, Sarsak was accused of membership of a militant Islamist faction, which he has always vehemently denied. He was torturedheld without trial for three years and eventually released without charge. 

His freedom on July 10, 2012 followed a 13-week hunger strike which garnered support for the young midfielder from diverse quarters, among them former Manchester United and French international star Eric Cantona, filmmaker Ken Loach, the international players' union FIFPro and eventually, Blatter himself.

Sarsak, celebrating what he calls his "re-birthday" in London during a break in a European speaking tour, took a circumspect view of FIFA's attempts to influence matters.

"I'm grateful for the support I received when I was on hunger strike and it's good to hear pledges to promote the right of Palestinian footballers to travel freely," Sarsak says. "We deserve the same right as any other nation to train and play, to demonstrate our excellence on an equal playing field. But this will not happen as long as we live in constant fear of bombing, drone attacks, detention and even death."

Sarsak's hunger strike was sparked in part by the death last January of Zakaria Issa, formerly a national team striker, who had been serving a long prison sentence. He died of cancer within a few months of being released, having been denied permission to travel to Jordan for expert treatment.

Four footballers were among the 1400 Palestinians killed when Israeli forces pounded Gaza in December 2008 -January 2009. There has been a sad catalogue of children falling victim to Israeli bullets and shells while playing football in the "wrong" place, most recently during the military assault which left 140 Gazans dead in November 2012.

There are at least two leading players among the 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners currently held in Israeli jails - Mohammad Sa’di Nimer of al-Khader Sports Club in Bethlehem and Olympic team goalkeeper Omar Khalid Abu Rweis.

The travel restrictions of which Israeli FA’s Luzon makes light constitute a barrier to all forms of Palestinian social, economic and cultural life. They are part of a pervasive system of controls that prevent students from Gaza accessing education in the West Bank, split family members based in different parts of the occupied territories, block movement of goods and people between Palestinian towns and villages and often make it impossible for international sporting events to take place. 

As recently as April this year, the Palestinian womens' football team had to abandon their training for the Asian Cup qualifiers because their head coach was denied a permit to enter Palestine from Jordan. In the same month the Israeli authorities prevented 23 runners travelling from Gaza to participate in an international marathon in Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Against this background Sarsak has little sympathy with European football's governing body UEFA which defended its decision to stage last month's under-21 tournament in Israel on the basis that sport had nothing to do with politics.


Girls taking part in the 'red card' protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh.

"(UEFA president Michel) Platini, Blatter, (International Olympic Committee president Jacques) Rogge - they have all come and seen apartheid," says Sarsak. "They have all made pledges to support Palestinian football. Then with complete hypocrisy UEFA gives Israel the under-21s on a platter of gold. They allow Israel to taint the name of sport." 

An ardent advocate of the power of sport to cross boundaries and give hope to the beleaguered, Sarsak says Palestinians practice it in a spirit of struggle.

"Israel knows this and sets out to deny us the capacity to show the world that we are not as they portray us," he says. "UEFA gives Israel the green light to continue breaking international law and even their own statutes."

"And now they tell us Israel will host the under-19 women's tournament in 2015!" Sarsak adds with incredulity. "This must not happen. Our friends in the football world should be exposing and clarifying the reality, not letting Israel polish its image by hosting international tournaments."

The contrast between European officials' willingness to intervene with threats of sanctions over racist abuse on the terraces, as occurred during Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, and their sanguine response to entrenched racism in Israel, exasperates Palestine's supporters. 

In May they found a venerable backer in Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and veteran of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle, who signed a letter to the Guardian after UEFA's congress in May celebrated the imminent games in Israel.

"Uefa should not allow Israel to use a prestigious football occasion to whitewash its racist denial of Palestinian rights and its illegal occupation of Palestinian land," said the letter, signed by Tutu, international football star Frederic Kanoute and 22 others.


A ruined Palestinian house dwarfed by Israel’s Netanya Stadium.

While the under-21s were playing in Israel June 5 -18, Palestinian and Israeli activists staged a series of "Red Card" protests, highlighting the ongoing illegal colonisation of Palestinian land and the history of match venues seized from pre-existing Palestinian football clubs or sited beside the ruins of destroyed villages.

The enormity of the injustices inflicted on Palestine is starting to resonate with anti-racist football campaigners in the UK, some of whom shared a platform with Sarsak at a public meeting in London on June 17 - the eve of the final under-21 match in Israel.

Piara Powar, executive director of the FARE Network which works against discrimination in football in 40 countries, said campaigners in the west were right to target bullying and name-calling in the sport, but the Palestinian experience makes these manifestations of racism seem minor by comparison.

"A campaign against Israel hosting the women's under-19 tournament in 2015 should be seen as a positive campaign for the right of Palestinian youth to play football in a safe environment," said Powar. "There can be no normal sport in an abnormal society."


Mahmoud Sarsak in the Gaza Stadium wrecked by Israeli bombardment.

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