I recently attended an extraordinary meeting of the European Parliament's Delegation for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The agenda had one item, an account given in person by Mahmoud Sarsak, a young Palestinian footballer held in administrative detention for 3 years without charge by the Israeli authorities.
Sarsak was released after over 90 days on hunger strike in protest at the conditions in which he was being held, and the illegitimacy of the process.
He gave a chilling account of his experiences of torture whilst in Israeli detention, being asked to "confess" but with no specific charges or allegations put to him. When asked what it was he was to confess to, he his interrogators responded "we don't know... something, anything."
While the account is unverified, we hear many of these accounts, and the consistent refusal of the Israeli authorities to allow independent inspections of their detention facilities (including refusal to allow MEPs to visit during delegation visits to Israel and Palestine), makes it difficult to refute such accounts.
Despite his clear and understandable trauma from detention, Mr Sarsak's biggest concerns are over Israel's hosting of the UEFA under 21s football competition in June this year. He feels that his targeting by the Israelis was because of their fear of Palestinians succeeding at sports on the international stage, and developing a sense of national identity on the world stage. We were shown evidence of the destruction of EU tax payer funded sports centres including football stadia, and the systematic destruction of wheelchairs and other facilities for Palestinian paralympians, also paid for by EU tax payers.
It was suggested that as a precondition for hosting such an event, that Israel should pay for the reconstruction of the sports facilities for the young and disabled in Palestine which have been destroyed by their military.
Israel’s hosting of the tournament has been raised with me by a constituent who felt it is important that assurances are sought for football fans in the West Bank and Gaza to be granted access to travel and attend the games by the Israeli Authorities. I have written to Michel Platini, President of UEFA to bring my constituent’s concerns to his attention. In light of the account by Mr Sarsak, it is crucial for such assurances, particularly for the safety of Palestinians moving around the region both as spectators and competitors to be given.
The comparisons to Apartheid South Africa were made, and while the circumstances are very different, the suggestion that pressure could be brought on Israel to improve its approach on human rights performance through a focus on sport sound sensible to me.
We should not break off communication with Israel, but we should do as much as possible to pressure the government to respect human rights, and sport could well be a platform to achieve this.