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Palestine Marathon defies Israeli restrictions on movement

March 27, 2015 12:15 P.M. (Updated: July 26, 2015 3:21 P.M.)
By: Charlie Hoyle

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Thousands of Palestinians and internationals took to the streets of Bethlehem on Friday, winding past historic churches, refugee camps, and Israeli military infrastructure to compete in the third annual marathon hosted by the ancient Palestinian city.

Conceived in 2013 under the theme of 'Right to Movement' by Danish aid workers Signe Fischer and Lrke Hein, the race is now a concrete fixture on the social calendar and provides a whirlwind tour of the impact of conflict and military occupation on the city.

Starting opposite the Church of the Nativity – the alleged birthplace of Jesus Christ – runners sped past a section of Israel's 708 kilometer long separation wall, which entirely surrounds the city's northern and western sides, before passing Duheisha refugee camp, and the town of al-Khader, near the Gilo military checkpoint.

Due to a matrix of restrictions affecting Palestinian movement and access across the West Bank -- there are 99 fixed checkpoints and hundreds of physical obstructions -- race organizers were unable to find a contiguous stretch of 42 kilometers for the race and instead runners do loops of an 11 kilometer track.

Indeed, 85 percent of the Bethlehem district is classified as Area C, under full Israeli control, and organizers wanted to limit any risks and stay within Palestinian Authority controlled Area A.

Despite the restrictions, the marathon is growing in size, and this year an estimated 3,100 people from 51 countries took part in the event, compared to 687 in 2013.

Most of the runners are Palestinian, over 40 percent are women and organizers secured permits for 50 Palestinians from Gaza to run the race -- around 30 were denied entry by Israel in 2014 -- a showcase for inclusiveness and Palestinian unity.

"In a city where we are completely besieged and the right of movement is restricted, we assert again and again our right to the liberty of movement through this marathon," the Mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun told Ma'an.

Hosting the marathon is not only a logistical success, Baboun says, but also a crucial way of explaining the Palestinian reality to the world.

"It's an experience of living the city and our circumstances as Palestinians," she says.

"For me, sport is one of the best messages to convey the reality of any nation. Through this marathon there is a social aspect, it brings people together. There are moments of joy, of winning, of achievements.

"We master joy and we master resilience, this is our message to the world. We are a people who look for peace and liberty."

'The right to move within your own country'

Although not overtly political, for many Palestinians the race has become a powerful platform for asserting long suppressed basic rights and provides a respite from overbearing Israeli control of the city and surrounding countryside.

Saleem, from Beit Sahour, took part in the race for the second year running with his wife and baby daughter and told Ma'an he was drawn to participate by the underlying concept.

"The fact that makes this marathon different from others is that it’s a clear message of our rights as Palestinians to be able to move like everyone else. That includes me and my family, and that is why as a family we joined," he said.

"Last year my daughter was around 5 months old, now a year after we hope that the marathon itself will be part of her life as she grows up."

The attraction for international participants is also based around the simplicity of the underlying concept of the race: Palestinians must be able to move freely in their own country.

Among this year’s participants were several Danish MPs and although running in a personal capacity the message of the race was a vital draw.

"It is about the right to move within your own country, the right to work and move around, to go to school without having to go through unnecessary procedures and checkpoints," Jens Joel, a Danish Member of the Social Democrats, told Ma'an.

"I like the fact that it didn't have a fixed political platform that you have to sign up to. That something that has nothing to do with politics can still send a political signal."

The marathon is organized at every level -- from local company sponsorship to route planning -- by Palestinians, and is by all measures implemented to international standards.

George Zeidan, one of the marathon's organizers, says the race also aims to tackle issues important for a younger generation of Palestinians, such as the empowerment of women.

"The most fascinating thing is that the participation of women is beyond 40 percent, that's a record. It's an important thing for us, the marathon, and the right to movement," he told Ma'an.

Zeidan is part of a group of runners who regularly practice in the al-Makhrour area of Beit Jala, a beautiful green valley located just hundreds of meters from Israel's Gilo checkpoint in Area C.

The group has been running for over three years and the weekly sessions are a way for women to train without feeling the stare of many locals, who often attach a stigma to women running in the streets.

Bethlehem has now become a hub for running in the West Bank and the marathon has created a platform for both the city and Palestinian participants to overcome both political and personal obstacles, Zeidan says, something everybody should be proud of.

"It is about emphasizing the importance of Palestinians having the right to move, and the way we emphasize this is through running."

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