Runners in Palestine exercise their right to movement as marathon season gets underway.
On April 26, over 30,000 runners will participate in the annual London Marathon. On the same day, the Madrid, Hamburg and Siracusa marathons will also take place.
Popular long distance races occur all year long throughout the world, and they provide countrymen with a focused challenge, uniting runners across the full spectrum of athletic ability and contributing greatly to their national sports culture. These events also bring in tourism — a decent deposit to the economy, with each race allowing a proportion of overseas runners to enter.
As such, London, New York, Madrid and Paris — to name a few — have become goals and ambitions of many runners from amateur ranks to the professionals.
In 2011, Israel placed Jerusalem on the list of international city destinations for sports tourism, and two years later, Bethlehem in the West Bank joined the assemblage.
On March 27, 2015, over 3,000 participants joined the Palestine Marathon — the latest addition to international athletic events — a number that grew from 650 in 2013 to approximately 2,500 in 2014.
However, the Palestine Marathon is not just vying for a space among the other global players. This race has a very special message: Athletes run to tell a different story and highlight the lack of movement West Bank residents have on their own land, which is greatly impacted by the security barrier that was imposed throughout the Palestinian Territory in 2002. This is why the event has been titled the “Right to Movement, Palestine Marathon.”
The marathon is jointly organized by the Right to Movement and the Palestinian Olympic Committee. It all started with two friends from Denmark, Signe Fischer Smidt and Laerke Hein. A keen runner, Smidt found running in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to be a challenge, while she worked in East Jerusalem. Running was never a culture in Palestine, and if you tried there was bound to be an obstacle due to the various checkpoints throughout the territories — if you ran, you would be stopped at some point. There was no movement there because it was not easy for Palestinians.
Article 13 of the Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State,” and “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” But that is not the case in Palestine, which is how Smidt and Hein founded the idea of the Right to Movement, Palestine Marathon, which was created in April 2013.
However, they did not arrive at the idea without facing challenges. Many people did not know what a marathon was; one volunteer commented that people thought running a marathon was like running for parliamentary office. Now they actually know, which is a big achievement. Moreover, participants arrived from 51 different countries, and 39% of them were women.
Palestine’s history in sports has triggered much provocation from Israeli authorities, who have systematically persecuted Palestinian athletes and created obstacles to international competition for them, as documented by the Palestinian Olympic Committee.
For the previous two years, no visas were issued to Gaza residents to enter the West Bank for the marathon, however, this year, 48 runners were granted exit visas from Gaza, including Palestine’s fastest man and Olympic long-distance runner, Nader al-Masri, who subsequently won the latest race. While he has participated in marathon races all over the world, this was the first time he could do so in his own country.
The race itself was a highly challenging and technical affair. To find 10 kilometers alone in Bethlehem requires every turn and corner to be explored, so runners took in incredible views and experienced the key manifestations of occupation, which the race was designed to highlight.
Leading from the Church of Nativity, the route stretched past “the wall,” the security barrier designed to separate the West Bank from Israel; through the Aida and ad-Duheish refugee camps; and the former village of al-Khader, which is now a suburb of Bethlehem. This area has seen the separation of several thousand square meters of farmland since the construction of the wall, with its inhabitants only being able to gain access to it with a permit.
The Right to Movement message does not end each year with the marathon. The organization has expanded and developed running communities that bring together athletes in their localities to run together to continually promote this message of a fundamental and pertinent human right. There are now nine Right to Movement communities globally, three of which are in Palestine.
For Palestinians, this is a new culture, and their involvement in the marathon is growing each year. The dream is that with their growing involvement, the Palestinians will take over the movement from its Danish originators for it to become their own project. Previous years have relied on international support and donors, however, 2015 was the first year the marathon was a fully Palestinian supported race, which brings this dream speeding into reality.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.