The travel agent explained to me that if there were any violence — such as a bombing or a violent protest — during my time in Palestine that I would not be covered under insurance because this would be considered “an act of war”. This seemed a little extreme, but it is this perception of Palestine as a place of perpetual conflict and violence that the Palestine Marathon is trying to counter.
The marathon, which was held for only the second time last Friday, was a peaceful display of hope for a different Palestine. Palestinian runners participated alongside international runners from over 39 countries to raise awareness of Palestinians’ lack of freedom of movement.
More that 3000 runners entered the 10-kilometre, half and full marathon events, making their way from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, along the wall between the West Bank and Israel, past the Aida refugee camp, and then alongside olive fields in al-Khader.
As Signe Fischer, a founder of the event, put it: “What we would like to show is that everyone can put on their shoes and go running.”
Fischer, a former humanitarian worker and runner herself, explains that the idea grew from starting a running group with Palestinians and expats. The overwhelming feeling at this running group was: “Now the army is not controlling us. We are normal people. We put on our iPod and go running. We want to show that we can do things.” This is the feeling Fischer hopes the event, run by a team of over 300 local and international volunteers, has created.
Palestinian runners seemed to revel in the opportunity. Many made the peace sign as they ran past spectators. They were undaunted by the hilly course. Children on bikes cycled with glee among the runners, causing brief moments of chaos.
The event was not without controversy. The problems Palestinians experience with movement was highlighted by Israel’s decision to deny permits for Palestinian runners from Gaza, including Olympian Nader al-Masri, to come to the West Bank to race in the event.
“We tried to get Palestinians from Gaza to enter. Unfortunately they were denied access,” Fischer explained. “The Palestinian Olympic Committee, a main partner of the run, applied for permits. However, only humanitarian cases are allowed out [of Gaza].”
The Palestine Marathon is happening in the shadow of beleaguered peace talks facilitated by United States Secretary of State John Kerry. Fischer says in her opinion “it’s naive or ignorant to think of a two-state solution” when “the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have a full 42-kilometre straight [of roads] to run a course on”. The full marathon course does two laps of the half-marathon course.
The event attracted criticism last year because Israelis were unable to run in it. Fischer explains the event is held in “area A” so that the running of the event would be under Palestinian control. However, as Israelis are not allowed to travel in “area A”, race organisers “had to advise the Israelis not to come” so they did not break Israeli law.
Fischer says the event has exceeded her expectations. “We started with the right to movement, but it is so much more than that.”
She was unable to hide her happiness at seeing young Palestinians pick up their race kits with smiles on their faces. “They are so eager to be part of a good story and not to be victimised,” she said.
*Kim Wilkinson studies a masters in modern Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oxford. Her thesis examines internet memes in revolutionary Egypt. She tweets at @Kim_Wilkinson.