The Footballer Who Went to Prison for Being Talented
Israel spent three years torturing Palestinian winger Mahmoud Sarsak.
In the West, footballers tend to get in trouble with the cops for totalling their cars while drunk, having sex with underage prostitutes or brawling in expensive nightclubs. Mahmoud Sarsak, on the other hand, was seemingly arrested just for being a decent footballer who was Palestinian. He was lifted by the Israeli security services in July 2009 while crossing from Gaza to the West Bank and wasn’t released until July 2012 after a 96-day hunger strike. The Israelis accused him of being a member of militant group Islamic Jihad and said that he had once planted a bomb that had injured an Israeli soldier. But they didn’t have any evidence and, after three years of torture and imprisonment, couldn’t get a confession. Palestinians suspect that he was arrested simply because the Israelis were afraid that Mahmoud – who was the youngest ever player in the Palestine League, aged just 14 – would soon be smashing in goals for a popular club and tearing off his shirt to reveal pro-Palestine messages, rather than mediocre in-jokes or sponsor's messages.
The controversy reared its head again this June when the European Under-21 Championship was held in Israel, to the consternation of pro-Palestinians campaigners. The tournament also made use of the stadium belonging to Beitar Jerusalem, a club with an openly racist fanbase who refuse to accept Muslim players.
Mahmoud visited the UK recently, so I met up with him and his translator Ayman Abuawwad, to drink mint tea, talk football and hear about his horrible experiences being tortured in an Israeli jail.
VICE: Hi Mahmoud. Could you tell me a bit about your footballing career before you were incarcerated?
Mahmoud Sarsak: I grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza strip. There was a football club there and I would often train. It started from there and eventually I got into the Palestinian national youth team, then the Palestinian national team and the Olympic team. I was a centre forward and a right winger.
Who did you look up to?
Del Piero, Zidane and Mohamed Aboutrika, one of the most popular Egyptian football players.
To be honest, all we ever hear about Gaza here is that it’s a huge open prison that is occasionally bombed. How big a part does football play in life there?
Football is a crucial part of Palestinian culture in general, particularly with the refugees. Living in a refugee camp does not mean you can’t play sport.
Is there a league structure? How does it all work?
I can’t think of any other country that has two separate league structures. We have one for the West Bank and one for the Gaza strip because of the geographical separation. The one for the West Bank is a little more organised and more regular because there’s more stability. In Gaza, we’re lucky if we get one championship done every four years. We keep on getting interrupted by attacks, incursions, airstrikes and the rest of it.
Mahmoud with London Gaza FC
Do you get situations where you can’t play because the pitch has been destroyed?
In 2009 and 2012, Israel destroyed football stadiums. I think they want to stop Palestine showing a more positive face and integrating with the international community.
Is football a big spectator sport in Palestine?
The resources are scarce and obviously it’s quite dangerous for people to crowd together, particularly in Gaza. Nevertheless, Palestinians are devoted football fans – they go no matter what. In Gaza, there’s a big club in Rafah, al-Shati refugee camp, and one in Shejaia. Also, Palestinians are crazy about the Spanish La Liga. They’re split equally between supporting Barcelona and Real Madrid.
So do you think Israel targeted you specifically because you were a footballer?
The whole thing was quite bizarre, you know. I got a contract to go and play professionally with the national team in the West Bank. I asked Israel for the papers to travel and they were granted. I was at the final checkpoint, on the north of Gaza which is Fort Erez, and in the waiting pool I was called for an intelligence meeting inside the room. After the meeting, they decided to transfer me to Ashkelon prison for investigation.
What happened there?
I was held for 45 days with no charge, being humiliated and tortured. They couldn’t get anything out of me. Eventually they came up with this accusation that I was an "Unlawful Combatant".
What does that mean?
The strange thing about this is that the Unlawful Combatant law is an Israeli law that applies only to non-Palestinians. For example, Lebanese people who get caught inside Israel or by the border might get called an Unlawful Combatant.
That’s weird. Where did that come from?
It’s strange. I think they just couldn’t think of anything else.
Logo of the Palestinian Football Association (Photo via)
So why do you think they did it?
I don’t know. In prison I was shocked to see so many PhD holders and professional footballers – the place was full of talented Palestinians. I think it’s an Israeli policy to prevent Palestinian talent from shining and showing a civilised face to the world.
I guess a Palestinian Pirlo would be good for the cause. Sorry to make you relive this, but could you tell me how they tortured you?
They use different torture techniques for different people. With me, they would interrogate me for several days and not let me sleep. One session went on for 14 hours continuously, then they would tie me to a chair for a couple of hours in a room with loud music so that I couldn’t sleep and then they would start again.
Sometimes when they put me in the chair they would also turn the whole room into a fridge. So the room would be at minus 12 or minus 15 for about half an hour. When I had almost fainted they would take me to a hospital to revive me so that they could start questioning me again.
What kind of questions would they ask you?
They wanted me to admit to something that I didn’t do, because that would justify the whole thing, nationally and internationally.
I’ve heard that accusation has been put to you numerous times since your release and you’re sick of refuting it.
[Mahmoud looks visibly frustrated] I was in jail without any charge. When I got out, there was no charge, no accusations, nothing. The Zionist lobby always tries to portray Israel as a civilised country that abides by human rights law – that it's peace-loving and so on. Israel actually asked some European countries not to let me in on the grounds that I’m a “terrorist”. They try to discredit and silence any Palestinian who comes to the surface in the Western media.
How did things progress over the three years of your incarceration?
The first 45 days were the hardest; there was mental, physical and verbal torture. Then they transferred me to a jail cell with other prisoners for eight months. After that, they called me back for another 12 days of torture and interrogation. It happened three or four times over my imprisonment.
Mahmoud remembers the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster, coincidentally the same number of days that he was on hunger strike.
When did start trying to get yourself out of there?
There was a guy called Zakariya Issa. He was in a cell and he had cancer and they didn’t help him. He died in his cell. That was a turning point. I started thinking, “I need to help myself because nobody else is going to help me.” For example, FIFA weren’t helping me at this point.
So what did you do?
I did a hunger strike for 96 days to show the world that there are people in cells that they had forgotten about.
As an athlete, that probably wasn’t the best for your body.
I lost half my weight and my muscles were damaged.
And after those 96 days you were released. It seems a bit random that they would suddenly release you, given that your detention was quite arbitrary in the first place.
The hunger strike gathered momentum nationally and internationally. FIFA and UEFA started applying pressure. Big football personalities like Eric Cantona, Abou Diaby, Frédéric Kanouté and Lilian Thuram also got involved in an international campaign of collecting signatures and a petition to release me.
How did it feel to be released?
During my hunger strike, I came close to dying and when I got out I felt like I was born again. I was so happy to have my freedom and see my family again. At the same time I was sad to leave my brothers suffering in jail.
Your career was put on hold but was it ruined forever?
Three years of my life were taken from me. I was in prison between the ages of 21 and 24 – some of the best years for a footballer when you’re young and agile. I was damaged both in terms of health and psychologically. After going to prison, it took me eight months to be physically able to train again. I haven’t lost hope. I’m going to go back into training and carry on with my career if I can.
Cool. Good luck, Mahmoud. Thanks for your time.
Thanks to Ayman Abuawadd for translation.
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