CNN International Whitewashes Soccer-Playing Member of Terrorist Org

Story celebrates Mahmoud Sarsak while downplaying his ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Mahmoud Sarsak / AP
June 6, 2013

CNN has come under fire for what critics say is a highly misleading Thursday story about a Palestinian soccer player who is boycotting Israel.

Critics said the sympathetic CNN profile of Palestinian soccer player Mahmoud Sarsak neglects to mention is that he is an admitted and active member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a violent Muslim Brotherhood affiliate that carries out terror attacks against Israel.

CNN’s story about Sarsak and his efforts to boycott a high-profile soccer tournament currently taking place in Israel were prominently featured on the front page of CNN’s international edition.

Pro-Israel advocates and Jewish officials expressed outrage over what they said is CNN’s efforts to whitewash Sarsak’s violent background and erroneously portray his boycott as a successful international campaign against Israel.

"The reporter makes a romantic figure out of someone with ties to Islamic Jihad and shows zero skepticism about Sarsak's rendition of events," said Andrea Levin, director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). "CNN shouldn't be in the business of whitewashing. Viewers need the whole story."

Sarsak, who splits his time between playing semi-professional football and working with the PIJ terror group, has become a cause célèbre among anti-Israel advocates who support boycotts of the Jewish state over what they argue is its unfair treatment of the Palestinians.

CNN centers its story on Sarsak’s unsuccessful attempts to convince the European Football Association (UEFA) to cancel its European Under-21 Championship, which is being hosted in Israel for the first time.

Israel’s ability to secure the popular tournament, which began on Wednesday, was viewed as a coup by the Jewish state’s supporters and with disdain by its detractors.

"It’s a very, very big deal," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which combats anti-Semitism. "Israel’s enemies correctly understand this is a historic event, a huge achievement for Israel because it normalizes her relationship with her neighbors."

Almost immediately after UEFA announced its decision to hold the tournament in Israel, the Jewish state’s most vocal detractors mobilized, using Sarsak as the poster child for what they claim is Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians.

Sarsak achieved a degree of prominence last year after his release from an Israeli detention facility, where he had been held for three years as a result of his work with the PIJ.

Sarsak waged a 93-day hunger strike to protest his imprisonment and soon joined forces with Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in a bid to convince UEFA to boycott Israel.

The PSC’s campaign failed after garnering scant support from fringe anti-Israel groups.

However, Israel’s detractors have reveled in CNN’s portrayal of Sarsak’s plight, which they view as a triumph in their media battle to delegitimize Israel.

The terrorist-cum-athlete is portrayed as an unjustly imprisoned freedom fighter on a selfless crusade to expose Israeli racism.

Rather than note Sarsak’s terrorist credentials near the beginning of the piece, CNN describes him as "a talented striker who had once been called up to the Palestinian national [soccer] team squad."

The article goes on to characterize the failed boycott campaign as highly successful and well received.

"The Israelis have accused Sarsak of having links with the extremist organization Islamic Jihad and of being involved in terrorist activities," CNN reporter James Montague writes.

However, Sarsak has admitted he is a PIJ member and has been featured extensively on the website of Islamic Jihad’s Saraya, or military wing.

"What’s quite telling is the Israeli authorities linked him not even to Hamas, but Islamic Jihad," said the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Cooper. "That’s a very serious thing."

Islamic Jihad organized a welcome-home reception for Sarsak following his release from Israeli detention in 2012. He has been celebrated on Saraya’s website multiple times.

Islamic Jihad leader Nafez Azzam praised Sarsak during the reception as "one of our noble members," according to reports.

Sarsak can be seen in pictures taken at the time wearing a PIJ scarf and being held aloft by fellow members of the terror group.

Sarsak told the Israeli Supreme Court in 2011 that he was connected to PIJ, leading it to extend his detention and deny his appeals for release.

CNN did not mention any of this information in its 2,000-word article, prompting pro-Israel advocates and media critics to cry foul.

"CNN signed on for a campaign to whitewash a terrorist, which is despicable, so they could write an article asking people whether they think it's right that Israel should be boycotted," said one Jewish official who would only speak on background.

"This is yet another disgraceful example of a major media outlet not doing its homework and peddling misleading or false anti-Israel propaganda," the source said.

Cooper said that while it is completely fair for CNN to cover Sarsak "they probably could have done a better job explaining what Islamic Jihad is."

"They [also] could have spent a bit of time on the idea a boycott [on Israel] is anti-Semitic," Cooper said. "Anytime they’d like an explanation, CNN Sports can come by and we’ll explain it."

Multiple CNN spokesmen did not respond to a Washington Free Beacon request for comment on the criticism of its article.

"There's no context for readers to understand why Israel would detain someone like this," noted CAMERA’s Levin. "It's not made clear that Islamic Jihad is a terrorist group responsible for suicide bombings in nightclubs, restaurants, and supermarkets."

"In fact, CNN skirts saying directly Sarsak is connected to Islamic Jihad—only that Israel ‘accused’ him of such links," added Levin.

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