Last updated: 29 September, 2012

Palestinian eyes Barca derby but not next to Israel soldier

Palestinian footballer and ex-hunger striker Mahmud Sarsak said Saturday he would attend next month’s Barcelona-Real Madrid derby but not in the same stand as Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Sarsak, a former prisoner without charge of Israel, told AFP the invitation to attend next month’s clash of the Spanish giants was dear to his heart and that of the Palestinian people, but he would not attend if he had to share it with Shalit.

“This invitation is very important for me and for the Palestinian people but I will not be able to accept it unless the Palestinian Authority gives me authorisation,” Sarsak said.

Sharing a box with Shalit on October 7 would be tantamount to a “normalisation” with Israel, he said. “Sports and politics mix here.”

Shalit was held captive for more than five years by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, until his release late last year in a swap that saw more than 1,000 Palestinians walk free from Israeli jails.

In July, Sarsak was freed and returned to his home in the Gaza Strip after observing a hunger strike of nearly three months while in an Israeli jail. His protest triggered concern from world footballing body FIFA and human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Sarsak was arrested in July 2009 while on his way from Gaza to sign for a West Bank club and was held without charge under Israel’s “unlawful combatants” law.

On Wednesday, FC Barcelona said it had agreed to invite Shalit, a football fan, to the Real game, drawing the ire of Palestinian groups.

The next day, the Catalan club said it had also invited the president of the Palestinian football federation, Jibril Rajub, the Palestinian envoy to Spain and Sarsak to the derby.

Hamas reacted furiously, demanding that FC Barcelona keep Shalit away, and urged Muslim media not to broadcast the game if the Israeli attended.

“We call on all Muslim, Arab and Palestinian media not to broadcast this game if Shalit attends,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Friday.

“FC Barcelona’s invitation to the criminal Shalit so they can pay homage to him is an offence to sentiments of the Palestinian people and to Arabs and Muslims, because Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was on a tank taking part in the killing of Palestinian civilians when he was captured (in 2006),” he said.