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First West Bank marathon highlights barriers to Palestinian movement

Marathoners observed a moment of silence for the victims in the Boston attacks before running a landscape scarred by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

By Correspondent / April 21, 2013

Participants arrive at the finish line during a marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 21. While half of the participants in Sunday's event, which included a half marathon and a 10-km race on top of the full 42-km distance, were local Palestinians, runners from 11 different countries participated as well.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Bethlehem, West Bank

Visitors come to Bethlehem from all over because of its reputation as the birthplace of Jesus, but, on an unseasonably rain-swept morning, Manger Square became the scene of a different kind pilgrimage as runners in spandex and checkered Palestinian keffiyeh scarves embarked on the West Bank’s first ever marathon.

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Even as last week’s fatal bombing at the Boston Marathon suddenly robbed the popular events of their innocence in the US, the spirit of the newest marathon seemed little dampened as runners warmed up to drum-driven Middle Eastern folk music. But as the worldwide trend of marathoning spreads to the Holy Land, the Bethlehem Marathon has inevitably been routed through the charged terrain of geopolitical and religious conflict.

Dubbed the "Right to Movement Palestine Marathon," event organizers cast the run as a demonstration against the Israeli security policies that limit Palestinian travel between their cities and towns.

From the start line outside of the Church of the Nativity (the site of a weeks-long standoff in 2002 between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military), the race led runners to the controversial concrete separation wall erected in the wake of the Palestinian uprising of the last decade, and then on past crowded neighborhoods populated by Palestinian refugees.  

"It sends a message of solidarity with the Palestinian people," says Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and the former head of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. "It sends a message to the Israelis to recharge their mental batteries and reconsider their policies and start recognizing facts on the ground. It shows the Palestinian people that they are not alone."

That said, the message of the Bethlehem marathon went beyond Israeli-Palestinan conflict to touch on the Palestinians’ own internal divisions. Several weeks ago, the United Nations organizers of the Gaza Strip marathon called off what would have been the third annual race there because the Hamas government banned women from participating – giving the Bethlehem event added significance.

Mixed-gender race

While Palestinian officials preferred to focus criticism on Israel and the military’s refusal to allow Gazan runners to travel to the West Bank for the Bethlehem race, female runners and spectators acknowledged the friction between the Western tradition of mass amateur races and the social sensibilities of conservative Islam.

"There’s no difference between men and women except for the shape of their bodies," says Kharoom Said, a 22-year-old religiously observant runner who insisted that her hijab head covering would not bother her and called Hamas’ decision "stupid." "It reflects how conservative and extreme they are. They are trying to suppress women and bring society backward."

Even though they had little praise of Hamas, residents of one refugee camp alongside the race route seemed to concur with the idea that a mixed-gender athletic event and tight-fitted athletic clothes flouted traditional religious mores.    

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