“His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
You may or may not remember the name Mahmoud Sarsak, subject of the most important and most underreported sports story of 2012. Sarsak is the Palestinian national team soccer player who was jailed for three years without charges by the Israeli government. He was denied contact with his family, a trial and kept largely in solitary confinement for reasons that bewilder his loved ones to this day. Finally Sarsak was freed after refusing food for ninety days, losing a third of his body weight, and through his personal agony, spurring international outrage. (Having 2,000 fellow hunger strikers certainly helped.) Organizations like Amnesty International, the 50,000-strong international union of soccer players, FIFpro and even Sepp Blatter, the morally sclerotic leader of FIFA, called for his release. Israel relented but that is clearly not the end of Sarsak’s story.
Now Mahmoud Sarsak is in the news again after refusing an invitation sent by the legendary team FC Barcelona to attend its October Clasico match next week against Real Madrid. Sarsak will not make the trip because FC Barcelona wants him there to mute planned protests against the presence of another person invited to attend the match, former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Sergeant Major Gilad Shalit. Shalit is an Israeli folk hero after being a prisoner of war for five years in Lebanon, captured on June 25, 2006, on the cusp of Israel’s brutal 2006 bombing campaign, known in Lebanon as the “July War”. One of the many circulated petitions protesting the Shalit invite was specifically written and signed by Palestinian soccer players and endorsed by entire clubs. Their petition read:
“We, Palestinian footballers, athletes and sporting organizations and officials, are dismayed to learn the great team of Barcelona will host Gilad Shalit to the Clasico, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, on October 7th, while more than 5000 Palestinian political prisoners remain rotting, many in isolation, many with no visits, many on hunger strike with no attention or care for them to be released….Just as the effective boycott of sports teams from the South African apartheid regime showed, sporting and political life cannot be separated. We ask you to not show solidarity with the army that oppresses, imprisons and kills Palestinian sportsmen and women in Palestine."
FC Barcelona had to respond to the torrent of criticism on its website, stating that contrary to reports it did not in fact invite Shalit itself but “accepted a request” from Israeli authorities to have Shalit “watch a match during his visit to Barcelona.” In the same press release, Barcelona announced its intent to unite Shalit and Sarsak as a symbol of efforts to bring “peace and harmony to the Middle East.”
But this is one game Sarsak wouldn’t play. As Sarsak said of Sgt. Maj. Shalit, “His slogan is the gun, whereas mine is football, whose message is love and peace. For this reason I will refuse.”
Sarsak also made clear that he understood that the roots of the invite wasn’t a desire for “peace and harmony” but a response to protest. “I know that the invitation was issued after heavy pressure on FC Barcelona so that it could get out of its dilemma, but the Palestinian people are not and will not be a means for [others] to get out of their dilemmas.”
The courage of this decision is very real. Not only was Sarsak rejecting FC Barcelona but also his own Palestinian embassy officials who formally asked him to attend. He was making clear that peace and harmony with Sgt. Maj. Gilad Shalit in the current circumstances would do more harm than good, selling the idea that peace under the current circumstances of quarantine and occupation was a peace worth having. As Sarsak said, “I cherish the invitation of a great club like Barcelona but not [as] an invitation for normalization.”
Sarsak also stated that he didn’t want anyone to interpret his rejection of the invite as a refusal to speak out politically about his time behind bars. “It is a great honor and it is a victory for a Palestinian prisoner and for the Palestinian cause and a victory for our principles and stances that a prisoner who is at the same time an athlete should go out and explain the suffering of his people,” he said. “But in the presence of the soldier Gilad Shalit on the same stands, I will refuse this invitation.”