#PalHunger | Mahmoud Al Sarsak’s family speaks out on his continuing hunger strike

IMEU Staff, Jun 3, 2012

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Mahmoud Al Sarsak’s mother, in Gaza

On July, 22, 2009, Palestinian National Team soccer player, Mahmoud Al Sarsak, bid farewell to his family as he had finally obtained an Israeli permit allowing him to cross Erez checkpoint in the north of Gaza and enter the West Bank. The 22-year-old player, at the time, was heading to Balata Refugee Camp to join the Palestinian National Soccer Team and to train there. The overwhelming happiness that overcame the young Palestinian athlete as he was issued the permit, describes his mother Khaldiya Shalabi, has turned into a curse of misery for him and his family.

As Mahmoud arrived at Erez, he was transferred to Ashkelon prison for 30 days of interrogation, only to be given a detention order on the 23rd of August under Israel’s ‘Unlawful Combatants Law’, which allows Israel to detain Palestinians from the Gaza Strip indefinitely, without charge or trial. Mahmoud was repeatedly denied any information on the reasons behind his so-far three year detention, and is thus denied his basic right of defending himself, leaving him with no option but to starve himself in protest to his situation. Entering his 76th day of hunger strike, Mahmoud is currently facing severe deterioration in his health, including loss in his sight, hearing and muscle, which might devastate his future soccer career if not lead to his death if it continues further.

In one of the camp’s alleys right behind the Rafah Sports Club, where he trained and played soccer for years, lies Mahmoud Al Sarsak’s home. A poster with Mahmoud’s photo, along with three other Palestinian hunger strikes whom exceeded 70 days of hunger strike, is hung up at the front wall of the house. Mahmoud’s nephews and nieces were playing with other children from the neighborhood in the alley when I arrived to visit Mahmoud’s family, and they led me inside the small house where his mother and sisters in law were sitting and where a huge portrait of young Mahmoud was placed. “We have been repeating the story over and over again” Mahmoud’s mother said, “It has been three years and now my son is dying, yet no one is able to change anything.” Now accustomed to the random visits of journalists which hasn’t changed anything in her son’s situation as she believes, Mahmoud’s mother put her veil on to prepare for the interview, saying she will not tire out from talking about it as there is nothing else she could do.

“Before you ask me if my son has any political affiliation”, she continued, “you need to know that my son has only ever been obsessed with his soccer games, neglecting even his computing studies which he wanted to finish in the West Bank. He is not engaged in anything else.” According to prisoner support and human rights association, Addameer, “The law defines an “unlawful combatant” as a person who has participated either directly or indirectly in hostile acts against the State of Israel, or is a member of a force perpetrating hostile acts against the State of Israel.” Not only has Mahmoud been denied his right to defend himself, but as a Palestinian prisoner from Gaza , he is also denied any family visits.

Mahmoud, just like every other Palestinian prisoner, was also transferred to a prison inside Israel, which is a violation of Articles 49 and 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibit that transfer of occupied people to the territory of the occupier.

Mahmoud’s sister in law believes that Mahmoud’s arrest was part of an intimidation strategy that Israel has been using against the residents of the Gaza Strip. “It is extremely difficult to obtain an Israeli permit to enter the West Bank via Erez, but knowing that if you get one then you might be arrested at the checkpoint without having done anything is enough to make you stop thinking about ever trying to visit the West Bank,” she said. Since the capture of shalit and the imposition of the siege on Gaza, visiting the West Bank from Gaza via Erez has become one of the most difficult things a Palestinian can do. Cases of interrogation and/or arrest at Erez crossing are not uncommon, with a number of Palestinians being held for years as a result of an attempt to pass onto the other side of the border.

Even patients who were trying to enter the west bank or Jerusalem for medical treatment have been subject to interrogation and/or arrest at Erez over the years. Right now, Mahmoud is only one day from matching up with the longest hunger strike in Palestinian history, that of Thaer Halahle and Bilal Diab who went on a hunger strike for 77 days. Mahmoud’s health is in grave danger, yet “Israeli Prison Service (IPS) is still denying access to independent doctors from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) to visit them [Mahmoud Al Sarsak and the other Palestinian prisoner on hunger strike, Akram Rikhawi] and refusing to transfer them to civilian hospitals for proper treatment.”



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