A Palestinian prisoner who has been refusing food in an Israeli jail for an unprecedented 86 days has dropped more than one-third of his body weight and is near death, according to a doctor familiar with his condition.
The prisoner, 25-year-old Mahmoud Sarsak of Gaza, has been held for three years without trial under an Israeli law that allows for indefinite detention even if no charges are brought against the suspect. Sarsak is determined to maintain his hunger strike until Israel agrees to either indict him or release him, according to his family.
His case has drawn little attention in Israel, where a broad hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinians prisoners ended last month with an agreement to improve their conditions.
But Palestinians, for whom the plight of prisoners is one of the most emotional issues in the struggle with Israel, are closely following the case of Sarsak and at least one other hunger striker, with some analysts warning that the death of either could ignite the West Bank.
“I think there would be lots of anger and of course people would go out to the streets for demonstrations,” says Sahar Francis, a lawyer who runs the Palestinian prisoner support group, Addameer.
“It would be a very bad situation.”
Until his detention in July of 2009, Sarsak played for the Palestinian national soccer team. Israeli authorities arrested him as he was leaving Gaza for a game in the West Bank. He launched his hunger strike on March 19 of this year when his detention order was renewed for a sixth time. (Prisoners detained without trial are brought every six months before a judge, who can either renew the detention or send the suspect home.) Since then, he has taken only fluids and some supplements, according to Dr. Ruchama Marton, who heads Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
Marton said PHR doctors have been visiting Sarsak regularly and one has seen him this week.
“He’s on the verge of death. He lost a lot of weight. He consumed all his fat tissue. He consumed most of his muscle tissue. And it’s an extremely dangerous condition,” she told The Daily Beast.
She added that prison authorities transferred Sarsak to a hospital briefly this week, but that he’s now back at the prison’s medical clinic.
Sarsak's case has also garnered attention in the sports world. In a statement to the press, the president of the soccer's international governing body, FIFA, Sepp Blatter, "expressed grave concern" over his hunger strike.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government, did not have information about Sarsak’s condition. He described him as a “self-proclaimed member of the Islamic Jihad,” a violent Palestinian group that has carried out attacks on Israelis. He said prosecuting Sarsak would force Israel to reveal intelligence sources who would then be targeted by the group.
But if Sarsak had admitted he belongs to the Islamic Jihad, it’s not clear why Israel wouldn’t simply prosecute him on the charge of membership in an illegal organization. When asked about it, Regev paused and said: “I’m not sure of the legalities. It’s more complicated than that.”
Sarsak’s family denies he was involved in militancy.
Regev went on to say that Sarsak had been involved in armed activities against Israelis, including laying bombs and manufacturing weapons.
“He’s a member of a very extreme, ruthless, and deadly organization that’s funded by Iran and that has no qualms about murdering innocent civilians. He couldn’t have been held for so long without a series of judges seeing all the relevant evidence and approving his continued detention,” he said.
Human-rights groups have repeatedly condemned Israel for detaining Palestinians without trial. A report by Amnesty International issued just last week said the practice “contravenes Israel’s obligations under international human-rights law and international humanitarian law.” The report said that as of April this year, Israel was holding 308 Palestinians in “administrative detention,” Israel’s term for the measure, including 24 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Israelis often defend the measure by pointing out that the United States detains people without trial at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.