Palestinians Challenge Movement Restrictions In Marathon

The Palestine Marathon gives runners an opportunity to challenge and bring attention to the way Israel restricts movement and freedom of Palestinians in the territory.
By @P_Strickland_ |
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    BETHLEHEM, occupied West Bank — Regretting that she did not participate in the first Palestine Marathon in 2013, Diala Isid trained for the past nine months for this year’s run.

    On April 11, more than 3,000 participants from 39 countries ran in the 2014 Palestine Marathon, the second annual running competition in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Runners participated in either a 10-kilometer run, a 21-kilometer half-marathon or a 42.19-kilometer full marathon.

    “It is an amazing experience to run for my right to movement,” Isid, a 23-year-old architect from Bethlehem, told MintPress News. Isid finished the half-marathon in just two hours and 37 minutes.

    The runners started outside Bethlehem’s historic Nativity Church, where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born, according to Christian tradition. From there, they trekked through the streets of Bethlehem and passed refugee camps on the outskirts of the city, running for a stretch against Israel’s West Bank barrier.

    A number of Israeli military areas and Jewish-only settlements — which most of the international community condemns as illegal — weave around the holy city, dividing it from neighboring towns and villages.

    “I didn’t participate in the marathon just for myself,” Isid said. “I did it to tell the world the Palestinian story, which we believe is different… to tell that world that as a woman living under occupation in Palestine, I cannot go the shortest route home from work because there are three checkpoints.”

    The marathon was organized by the Right to Movement campaign and other local organizers. Its stated aim is to challenge the suffocating restrictions on movement Israel imposes on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank — including East Jerusalem — on a daily basis.


    No space
    “The idea to organize a marathon in Palestine came to me one day as I was waiting in a check-point,” Signe Fischer, one of the event’s organizers, told the Right to Movement. “I just moved here from Denmark, and Palestinian’s [sic] inability to move was what struck me the most.”

    Groups of runners in Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem trained for months in preparation for the marathon, often meeting up on a weekly basis.

    The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, which monitors human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, estimates that there are some 515,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

    The group also notes that Palestinians’ freedom of movement is severely impeded by at least 99 checkpoints in the West Bank. Additionally, Israel’s military “erects hundreds of surprise flying checkpoints on West Bank roads” each year. At these Israeli checkpoints, Palestinians are routinely stopped and are frequently held for interrogation or exposed to physical violence.

    Isid, the runner who participated in this year’s marathon, explained that Palestinians live under a permit regime that controls their access to places across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. “If I want to go to Jerusalem, I have to apply for a permit from the Israeli authorities.”

    “That’s followed by a long wait, and at best, I’ll get [an entry] permit that lasts two or three days,” she continued. Most applicants wait for weeks before finding out whether their requests were approved.

    Due to the lack of contiguous space, marathon runners were forced to run the half-marathon route twice.

    Passing gun-toting soldiers and military watchtowers, they ran along Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank, which has been deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. Spanning hundreds of kilometers, the immense structure is concrete in parts and electric fencing in others.

    Though Israel has in the past declared its intent to establish it as a permanent border in a future peace agreement, the wall veers into the West Bank and encroaches on Palestinian land on up to 85 percent of its length.

    According to Stop The Wall, a Palestinian organization that documents the separation wall, more than 257,000 Palestinians will be isolated by the barrier, settlements and settler roads once the 500-mile structure is completed.


    Banned from entry
    Palestinian Olympian Nader Masri, who is from the Gaza Strip, was unable to participate in the marathon after Israel’s military denied him entry to the West Bank ahead of the event. Israel’s Supreme Court subsequently held up the military’s decision.

    Masri, 34, competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He trained for the Palestine Marathon, but, in the end, he was not permitted to leave the Gaza Strip.

    As of press time, the Israeli military spokesperson had not responded to requests to comment on this article. But Israeli military defense official Guy Inbar told The Associated Press that the marathon had “political overtones” and “does not meet the rules for exceptions for sports events.”

    Palestinian athletes face a number of barriers besides travel restrictions, such as funding. Due to a lack of financial resources, competitors usually train in inadequate facilities.

    In the past, Masri reportedly noted that he could improve his running time significantly if he were able to train in a proper stadium, instead of the damaged streets of Gaza.

    Israeli athletes, on the other hand, do not face the same restrictions or barriers. With state-of-the-art training equipment and stadiums in cities across the country, they also enjoy state and private funding that far exceeds that received by Palestinians.

    Ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games, Israeli Olympians also received private funding from multi-millionaires. Among the donors were Jeff Zucker, the former president and CEO of NBC Universal and the current president of CNN, and Richard Shore, president of the Shore Capital investment banking group.

    Isid explained that participation in public events like the Palestine Marathon is an important means for Palestinians to challenge and expose Israel’s often arbitrary restrictions on their daily lives.

    “I will encourage my friends and family to run, too,” she said, adding that she hopes to complete a full marathon in 2015. “Having the right to movement means we must have the freedom to [go to] any place we want and for any reason… and that’s what we are running for.”

    Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

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