Manchester United legend Eric Cantona, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, UEFA President Michel Platini, renowned British film director Ken Loach and US intellectual Noam Chomsky are among international figures who have joined calls for Israel to release Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak.
25-year-old Sarsak is on hunger strike and close to death. A player with the Palestine national soccer team, he has been on hunger strike almost 90 days in protest at his imprisonment without charge or trial.
Sarsak was taking nutrients at the insistence of his lawyer ahead of a judicial review on June 14.
Mahmoud was arrested by Israeli forces while travelling from his home in Gaza to play a match with his team on July 22, 2009 in the West Bank.
Mahmoud's family say he was interrogated for 30 days before being jailed. At the time, Israeli authorities claimed he was an “unlawful combatant” but he has been imprisoned for the past three years with no formal charges being laid against him and no trial to answer the allegations.
The International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPro) has called for the immediate release of Sarsak. The federation — which represents 50,000 professional players from across the globe, including those from some of the largest leagues in the world such as France, England, Italy, Spain, Brazil and Ireland — says it is “deeply concerned” by the situation.
Philippe Piat, FIFPro’s vice-president, says: “Sarsak is not the only player who is suffering from the actions of the Israeli government. There are stories of other players who have been harassed, arrested or even killed.
“The freedom of movement is a fundamental right of every citizen. It is also written down in the FIFA regulations that players must be allowed to play for the national team of their country.
“For some footballers it is impossible to defend the colours of their country. They cannot cross the border. They cannot visit their family. They are locked up. This is an injustice.”
Reports from inside Palestine suggest that Sarsak's health is deteriorating rapidly and that he has lost his sight. A physician who visited him in hospital recently said he was suffering from extreme loss of muscle tissue, drastic weight loss, loss of consciousness and was in danger of pulse disruptions which could kill him.
Two other hunger striking prisoners are also said to be in a critical condition.
The hunger strike has resulted in heightened tension in Gaza where armed groups outside the control of the Palestinian Authority have threatened retaliation if any of the hunger strikers die.
In early June, a Palestinian fighter and an Israeli soldier were killed in a border clash during an attempt by radical militants to capture Israeli soldiers and use them to bargain for the release of hunger strikers.
The strike has also drawn attention to two other imprisoned Palestinian footballers: Olympics team goalkeeper Omar Abu Rwayyes and Aqabat Jaber player Ahmad Khalil Ali Abu El-Asal.
Electronic Intifada said Israel is scheduled to host the UEFA Under-21s competition next year. More than 40 Gazan football clubs wrote a letter to UEFA President Michel Platini more than a year ago to protest this. They have received no reply.