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.
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.
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.
"God has not banned engaging in sports activities, but there is a discipline that every sport has to follow," says Mahmoud Abu Salem, who donned a white knit headcovering worn to the Mecca pilgrimage. "All of these activities have to be controlled."
Other marathon controversies
The Palestinian marathons weren’t the first to stir political controversy in the region. When Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat and organizers there routed the city's first marathon through sections of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as their future capital, it touched off efforts by Palestinian activists against the corporate sponsors of the Jerusalem race.
After Gaza’s marathon was cancelled by the United Nations refugee organization there, Israel’s army spokesperson tweeted condemnation of Hamas. But the military turned down appeals by the Palestinian Olympic Committee, Israeli human rights groups, and individual Israeli marathoners to allow a group of runners to participate in the Bethlehem race.
Despite the immersion in local politics, the race organizers could not ignore the trauma of the Boston bombings. Moments before the start of the marathon, a moment of silence was observed on Manger Square. Palestinian National Security officers and local police said that commanders put them on heightened alert for possible sabotage.
"After Boston, our eyes are more open," says officer Hamza Abdallah. "We are prepared for the worst."
As racers did a U-turn next to the graffiti-filled concrete separation wall that severs Bethlehem from the holy site of Rachel’s Tomb, Palestinian police patrolled the raceway under the darkened windows of an Israeli military watch tower. One national security officer said there was close coordination with the Israelis, but "they don’t get near us and we don’t get near them."
Win dedicated to 'martyrs'
The winning marathoner crossed the tape around three hours after the start, and after being carried to the stage by an excited group of fans he dedicated the victory to the Palestinian "martyrs" and prisoners in Israeli jails.
Palestinians acknowledged that long-distance running is still in its infancy in the West Bank and Gaza; it seemed that half the runners were foreign tourists or expatriates living in the region. Many blamed it on the limitations on movement enforced by Israel’s military while others said that soccer is emphasized over track and field by sports authorities.
Although the rain and cold kept many spectators off the race route on Sunday, those near the event recognized the potential of the marathon to bring in tourism – an important industry in this city. And despite the political message, many Palestinians were divided over whether it was a good way to protest Israeli restrictions.
Some said it would change little and that only armed clashes would influence Israel, while other said that the fledgling event could bring change.
"I’m running this for myself. It’s the ultimate test of endurance," says Ahmed Taha, a university student form Ramallah who wore a Palestinian pin on his jersey. "Anything that will bother Israel I support – it will bring people all over the world to here, and they will fight for Palestine, not physically, but through the media."