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Thousands join Bethlehem marathon for free movement rights

By Zann H. - April 05, 2017
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [freedom of movement] [marathon]

Usually tranquil, the city of Bethlehem sprang to life on March 31 as around 6,000 Palestinians and foreigners took part in the 5th Annual Free Movement Palestine Marathon.

There are many reasons that make the marathon in Bethlehem unique. This occupied city, with barriers such as the separation wall and road blocks set up by the Israeli authorities, does not offer a continuous 42-kilometre stretch of land for a full marathon to take place. To get around this obstacle, the marathon consists of two 21-kilometre loops which take one through undulating terrain. Starting from the cobbled streets near the Nativity Church in Manger Square, the route passes through two refugee camps - Aida and Dheisheh - and along the infamous separation wall.

This race is a stark reminder of the severe restrictions of movement imposed on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation not only in Bethlehem but in the Occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip as well.

Shahina Bahar who came from the UK to take part in the event, sees the wall as the most striking feature of the run. She thinks that “it is a reminder about the occupation” and she feels “it is important that the route goes past the wall.”

Alexander Nicolas Truelsen came with the NGO Action Aid Denmark - a group of 14 students and volunteers from Copenhagen. He managed to “get a little taste of the restrictions that Palestinians face daily but it is nothing compared to the tough realities that Palestinians really face. While traveling around the West Bank in the last few days, we can move around freely just because we are foreigners but not the Palestinians.”

To shed further light on what he has witnessed, Truelsen explained that, “one morning, we crossed Checkpoint Three Hundred at 5am. We stood there with lines and lines, thousands of people, making their way into Israel. They wake up at 3 or 4 am to make it in time for work on the Israeli side. They were waiting in line like cattles. They were not treated very nicely, it’s hard.”

This impediment to the fundamental right to freedom of movement contravened article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. With the aim of highlighting the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, the Marathon was formerly organised by Right to Movement, while this year’s marathon falls under the management of the Palestine Olympic Committee. The objectives remained largely the same nevertheless – to bring a world class sporting event to Palestine, for cultural exchange between Palestinians and the international community and to expose the struggles of living under occupation.

In fact, the marathon represents both sides of a coin – while celebrating Palestine’s rich culture and history, there lies hidden beneath this sporting event’s surface the hardship that Palestinians face due to the restrictions on their movement.

Casting the harsh realities aside, this was a day of fun for locals and foreigners alike. Sandra Buijsse from Sweden lauded the event for its inclusiveness as about 500 participants with disabilities took part as well, “It feels like the whole city is taking part as well as many people from outside. The freedom of movement message I think is the most important one.”

Bahar echoed the same view, “You have Palestinians and foreigners. You have the old and the young and even people in wheelchairs and walking with sticks. It is just a great way to show solidarity with Palestinians.”

Samer Al Dajani, a native of Bethlehem, proves that this event is not only for people. When his dog, Butchy saw him taking part in the race, it started barking non-stop so he had to let it tag along as well. It was the only four-legged participant. It ran for 2km and attracted a lot of attention.

“This race is good for Bethlehem, everyone in the world can see the marathon on TV, on Facebook and on the internet,” says Al Dajani.

According to Hanan Musleh, whose family is originally from a village called Deir Tarif near Tel Aviv, “The marathon is a good idea, it is about the right of movement of the Palestinian people and also the right of the land. It is a gathering, it brings people not only from Palestine but from many other countries around the world.”

Diala Isid, one of the leaders of the Right to Movement group, highlighted the achievement of her running groups which train several times a week, especially that of the female members that garnered 3rd place in the full marathon and 2nd place in the 10 km race. One of their rationale for running in the marathon, as Isid says, is to “claim our basic human right to the freedom of movement and to empower women to run, we are happy to tell the world different stories from Palestine.”

Another feature which differentiates this marathon from the other marathons is the fact that the route takes the runners through refugee camps. For Nozomi Nakashima from Japan, “It is a very rare experience, we do not have much chance to come and run inside a refugee camp, Aida Camp. I will invite more friends to join next year.”

As the heat got more intense towards mid-day, the crowd finally gathered at Manger Square for the award ceremony. Middle-eastern pop music filled the air as people from all walks of life mingled and livened up the atmosphere.

Jibril Al Rajoub, the Head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee concluded the event by giving a speech in English,reminding everyone that:

“The emergence of an independent Palestinian state is a must, with East Jerusalem as its capital. It is a necessity to ensure security and stability. We hope that next year, we will hold the Palestine Marathon in East Jerusalem, liberated forever from this racist and fascist occupation.”


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