RAMALLAH, West Bank — A former Palestinian soccer player recently released from an Israeli jail has rejected an invitation by Barcelona to its upcoming game with Real Madrid.
Mahmoud Sarsak rejected the invite Sunday. He was freed this year after three years in jail capped by a 90-day hunger strike. Israel says he was active in the violent Islamic Jihad group, a claim Sarsak denies.
Barcelona invited three Palestinians to the game after activists issued complaints over the team’s invitation to former Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held captive by Hamas in Gaza for nearly five years. Hamas called for a media boycott of the club last week and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists signed a petition urging the football club to withdraw its invitation to Shalit.
“We understand that this is a gesture of good will by the club towards a person who has suffered five long years of captivity in the Gaza Strip and who has made known his admiration for the Barcelona team,” the petition stated. “However, the former soldier Gilad Shalit is not just an Israeli citizen; he’s also a Sergeant Major of the Israel Defense Forces, an army that since 1967 has illegally occupied the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza strip and the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights.”
The other Palestinians Barcelona invited, Football Union President Jibril Rajoub and the Ambassador to Spain, confirmed attendance for the Oct. 7 match.
A source in the Israeli Embassy in Spain told Israel Hayom last week that the opposition to Shalit’s visit was driven by a fringe group of people motivated by hatred of Israel and does not reflect the country’s general population.
“We regret that these elements are turning Shalit, who for many was and remains a symbol of an important humanitarian issue, to a target for their poisonous darts. We are certain that the team and its fans will welcome him warmly,” said the source.
Shalit was released in a prisoner exchange with Hamas last October after nearly five years in Hamas captivity. He is well-known for his love of sports, speaking in interviews about how news of his favorite teams helped him get through hard times. In June, he was signed on as a sports columnist by the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth.