AP News

Israel frees hunger-striking Palestinian player


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Dozens of Islamic militants fired rifles in the air Tuesday in a rousing homecoming for a member of the Palestinian national soccer team who was released by Israel after being held for three years without formal charges.

The player, Mahmoud Sarsak, 25, had staged a hunger strike for more than 90 days to press for his release, winning support from international sports organizations.

Israel accused Sarsak of being active in the violent Islamic Jihad group, a charge he denied while in custody.

However, senior Islamic Jihad officials were present during a welcoming ceremony for him in Gaza City on Tuesday, and one of the group's leaders, Nafez Azzam, praised the soccer player as "one of our noble members."

Later Tuesday, as Sarsak approached his family home in the Rafah refugee camp, dozens of Islamic Jihad gunmen fired in the air from SUVs and motorcycles. Women waved black Islamic Jihad banners from nearby homes and streets were decorated with huge photos of the player.

After he emerged from his car, Sarsak was hoisted on shoulders, then kissed and hugged by friends and family.

During the hunger strike, Sarsak had lost nearly half his normal weight. He was released earlier Tuesday from an Israeli prison hospital, said Prison Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman.

Sarsak was arrested in July 2009 at a crossing between his native Gaza and Israel on his way to the West Bank for a soccer match. Israel's Shin Bet security service alleged that Sarsak once planted a bomb that injured an Israeli soldier but said it did not have sufficient evidence for a trial. As a result, Sarsak was held without charges.

In March, he launched a hunger strike to press for his release. He ended the fast in mid-June after winning assurances that he would be freed.

During the hunger strike, doctors who examined him said he suffered from fainting spells, memory lapses and dangerous pulse disruptions.

Hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel have staged hunger strikes this year, but no one generated as much international support as Sarsak.

As Sarsak's condition deteriorated, FIFA's president asked Israel's soccer federation to urgently intercede on the player's behalf with the Israeli authorities. FIFPro, an international organization of professional players, 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.


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