Israel released a member of the Palestinian national soccer team on Tuesday after imprisoning him without trial for three years, during which he staged a four-month hunger strike in protest.
Mahmoud al-Sarsak, 25, alleged by Israel to have been active in the Islamic Jihad militant group, received a hero’s welcome on his return home to Islamist-ruled Gaza.
Soccer legend Eric Cantona and other international figures signed a letter drawing attention to Sarsak’s plight. Sepp Blatter, president of world soccer’s governing body FIFA, also wrote to the Israeli soccer authorities to seek help.
Islamic Jihad issued a statement proclaiming Sarsak’s freedom as “a victory of will, determination and steadfastness.”
After he emerged from his car, Sarsak, who repeatedly denied all charges against him, was hoisted on shoulders, then kissed and hugged by friends and family.
Islamic Jihad gunmen fired into the air and fellow athletes crowded around—thrusting a soccer ball into his hands—as Sarsak was admitted to hospital in Gaza.
“I thank God and all the athletes of the world,” Sarsak said, between sips from a bottle of water.
During the hunger strike, Sarsak lost nearly half of his normal weight. He was released earlier Tuesday from an Israeli prison hospital, said Prison Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman.
Israel detained Sarsak in 2009 when he left Gaza to play soccer in the occupied West Bank.
In March, he launched a hunger strike to press for his release. He ended the fast in mid-June after winning assurances that he would be freed.
Doctors who examined him during the strike said he suffered from fainting spells, memory lapses and dangerous pulse disruptions.
Sarsak was the latest of several Palestinian prisoners freed by Israel in the past three months after intermittent hunger strikes protesting against their detention without trial and demanding better prison conditions.
Israel struck a deal last month with representatives of 1,600 Palestinian prisoners under which they stopped hunger strikes of up to 27 days in exchange for Israel ending their solitary confinement, permitting family visits and making other improvements in prison conditions.
Another Gaza man, Akram al-Rekhawi, a member of the Islamist Hamas group who has served eight years of a nine-year sentence in Israel, has been on an intermittent hunger strike for 90 days seeking an early release due to illness, Palestinian officials said.