Palestinian footballer to end strike, go free

Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A member of the Palestinian national soccer team, imprisoned by Israel for nearly three years, agreed Monday to end a hunger strike of more than three months in exchange for his release July 10, his lawyer said.

The deal to free Mahmoud Sarsak would end the longest hunger strike ever launched by a Palestinian prisoner held by Israel. In a symbolic act, Sarsak, who has shed nearly half his normal weight, ate a small piece of chocolate on Monday evening to show the strike was over.

Israel has accused Sarsak of being active in the violent group Islamic Jihad, a claim he has denied. He was arrested in July 2009 at a crossing between his native Gaza and Israel on his way to the West Bank for a football match. He has been imprisoned since then without formal charges or trial.

In March, he launched a hunger strike to press demands for his release.

As his condition deteriorated, prominent figures in the sports world came to his support. FIFA's president asked Israel's football federation to urgently intercede on Sarsak's behalf with the Israeli authorities and FIFPro, an international organization of professional footballers, called for his release. Former Manchester United great Eric Cantona, British filmmaker Ken Loach and others signed a petition calling for freedom for the player.

Meanwhile, Palestine soccer officials, citing Sarsak's ordeal, asked UEFA to remove Israel as the host of the 2013 European Under-21 Championship.

In a letter released late Monday by Israel's football association, UEFA President Michel Platini said the tournament would be held in Israel "despite a certain amount of pressure being put on us."

Sarsak's lawyer, Mohammed Jabareen, said the agreement to release his client was reached with Israel's Prisons Authority.

As part of the arrangement he will be transferred from a prison clinic to a civilian hospital on Tuesday to help him recover from the long fast, the lawyer said. On July 10, the 25-year-old Sarsak is to be released and sent to Gaza, Jabareen added.

Israel's Prisons Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman declined comment Monday.

Earlier this month, independent doctors who examined Sarsak said he suffered from fainting spells, memory lapses and dangerous pulse disruptions. Six days ago, as negotiations on a release deal moved ahead, Sarsak agreed to drink vitamin-infused milk, and he has gained five kilograms, or 11 pounds, since then, Jabareen said.

Hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel have staged hunger strikes this year, but none have generated as much international support as Sarsak, who kept going when the others stopped.

Israel portrayed Sarsak as a dangerous activist in the violent Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, which has killed scores of Israelis in bombings and shootings. Israel's Shin Bet security service has alleged that Sarsak once planted a bomb that injured an Israeli soldier but acknowledged in a statement that "there is no evidence available to try him for criminal activity."

Palestinians have hailed hunger strikes as the first effective means in years of exerting pressure on Israel. The protests, which brought several prisoners close to death, Sarsak among them, have also drawn attention to Israel's practice of holding Palestinians without charges or trial, in so-called administrative detention.

Among those held without trial or charges, Sarsak is a special case. Israel has imprisoned him as an "unlawful combatant," a status with even fewer legal rights than those of administrative detainees, according to the Israeli rights group B'Tselem. There's a legal review every six months, but the burden proof is on the prisoner to show he is no longer dangerous, the group said.

The designation of "unlawful combatant" is used for detainees from abroad, and Israel places Gaza in that category. Israel says it cut all ties with Gaza when it withdrew in 2005, after 38 years of occupation. After the takeover of Gaza by the Islamic militant Hamas, Israel declared the territory a "hostile entity."

Sarsak is currently the only "unlawful combatant" held in Israel, according to the Israel Prisons Authority.

He was arrested on July 22, 2009, at a crossing between Gaza and Israel. At the time, he was en route to the West Bank, on the other side of Israel, for a game against a West Bank club.

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Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed reporting.

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