Friday, June 22, 2012

Soccer , a hunger strike and settlements, or how to lose friends easily

It was not all that long ago. In 2007 the famous soccer player Eric Cantona, former star of the Manchester United team who had quite a few fans in Israel, came over here and participated in the Beach Football tournament which took place in Netanya. He was interviewed by the media, especially those involved in sports, shook hands with Israeli athletes and a few politicians, and expressed his great satisfaction to be in Israel.

Two years later, in 2009, there occurred in our country a sport-related event of a rather different kind. Soccer player Mahmoud Sarsak of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, member if the Palestinian National Team, arrived at the Erez Checkpoint dividing the Gaza Strip from Israel, on his way to a football match in the West Bank. He never arrived there, nor did he again get a chance to play soccer. Since then he has been held in Israeli prisons, considered an "Unlawful Combatant" – a term quite problematic in International law, but enshrined in Israeli Law since 2002.  Not that there was any proof shown of Mahmoud Sarsak having ever taken part in combat (other than the kind of combat conducted by kicking a round ball on a green pitch). However, the law does not require any such proof. Anyone defined by the Israel Defence Forces as being an Unlawful Combatant is by definition an Unlawful Combatant and as such may be held behind bars indefinitely.

Three months ago, Mahmoud Sarsak began a hunger strike in his cell at the Ramla Prison, and persisted in it. With his hunger strike lasting beyond three months, he gained increasing fame among his people and throughout the world. A widely distributed poster of him, published first in Arabic and then translated into various languages
​​(including Hebrew), showed the imprisoned footballer  wearing an Israeli prison uniform and holding a football, with the caption reading "Mahmoud Sarsak, hunger strike world champion " – which was not an idle boast.

In the Netherlands, soccer players held a demonstrative match on the streets of Amsterdam, with their shirts bearing the word "Sarsak" and Dutch MPs also attending. From overseas came to Israel the angry voice of Eric Cantona, demanding the release of the detained Palestinian footballer, and also making reference to Israeli violations of International Law and Human Rights and to  blatant manifestations of racism against African refugees and migrant workers in south Tel Aviv. Also Sepp Blatter, President of the International Football Federation, sent an official letter to the Government of Israel, expressing the Federation's grave concern for the condition of Sarsak and calling for his  immediate release. Blatter also appealed to the Israeli Football Association to  use its influence on behalf of the detained Palestinian soccer player whose life was in manifest danger.

Avi Luzon, Chair of the Israeli Association, hastened to throw away this hot potato, announcing that his association "does not deal with matters of state security." But in fact, it was Israel's security services themselves which started to feel apprehensive (not necessarily for humanitarian reasons) of what might  happen should Sarsak die in the Israeli prison. Sarsak's attorney was unofficially approached and asked to convince his client to accept milk, so as to preserve his life until the Israeli decision makers made up their minds. Indeed, after a few days Sarsak was given an official reassurance that he would be set free no later than July 10. No doubt, he would be given a hero's welcome – but would also need to undergo extensive medical treatment and it is far from sure he would ever be able to return to the soccer field.  And soccer fans in Israel may not see Eric Cantona here again.

As it happened, in the same period there was an extensive interview with Danny Dayan, Chair of the settlers' "Judea and Samaria Council". Dayan considers himself to be a moderate, and has no hesitation in condemning the torching of mosques in Palestinian villages. To Dayan's mind, such actions are unnecessary and even harmful to the settler cause, at a time when so many settlement accomplished facts had been created on the ground. According to Dayan, the settlers are very close to achieving their strategic objective, i.e. to block and prevent any possibility of establishing a Palestinian state and soon foreclosing this option for good. And Dayan happily recounted having recently spoken with a senior European diplomat who saw things in much the same way (and himself was not precisely happy about it).

It is very possible that Danny Dayan is right, and that we have indeed passed already - or will soon pass - the point of no-return. The occupation will become irreversible, the State of Israel will remain in control of the Occupied Territories, and will continue to rule the Palestinians, take over more and more of their lands under all kinds of excuses and pretexts and build on it ever more settlements.
And of course for the policy makers it would be unthinkable to grant civil rights to the Palestinians – rather, they would be left indefinitely as subjects, under military rule, with no rights.

If so, it is likely that there would be very many Eric Cantonas. There will be many people – sometimes artists, sometimes soccer players, sometimes just decent people – who will simply start get nauseated by this country. For some of them there would be one specific event tipping the balance, for others it will be the accumulation of many occasions and events. In any case, Israel's friends will quickly become ex-friends.

True, there is in the world one type of people who would have no problem in being good friends of Israel, also of an occupier and oppressor Israel. Last week Knesset Member Ze'ev Elkin, Chief Parliamentary Whip for the ruling  government coalition, went off to Brussels in order to strengthen ties with Europe's extreme right parties. He noted that the State of Israel has much potential support among the European Far Right who hate the Muslims, though he did mention that one should be wary of neo-Nazis.

Representatives of Jewish communities in Europe, involved in a struggle against the extreme right-wing parties in their own countries, were not happy  with Elkin's mission. To which Elkin responded: "The fact that there is a conflict of interest between Israel and Jewish communities is problematic, but a country can not remain without allies. The Liberals in Europe have already abandoned us and became an enemy, we should turn to whoever we  can" (Yediot Ahronot, June 21, 2012).

It seems Mister Elkin would even sell his mother to hold on to the territories.