The ninth Palestine Marathon was held Friday, March 10, with a route that must be run twice, all because of a 30-foot wall that obstructs the path of the runners.
The wall is part of a 700-kilometer (435 miles) barrier that cuts deep into traditional Palestinian lands that Israel began building in 2002 and adds to continuously. The wall protects hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlements that the United Nations has said is illegal under international law.
For the thousands of runners in the “Freedom of Movement” marathon in Bethlehem, Palestine, it’s as much a race of raising awareness of Palestine under Israeli occupation as it is for getting their best times.
The race began in 2013 and is named after words in Article 13 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This article guarantees the right to move and live freely within a country’s borders, as well as the right to leave and return to one’s own country.
The race is also aimed at promote tourism in Palestine, specifically Bethlehem, the home of Church of Nativity and Jesus birthplace, where hundreds of thousands of Christian tourists visit every year.
For Mahmoud Sharaf, a 29-year-old Palestinian gym instructor and personal trainer from Jerusalem, getting to the marathon was a trek in and of itself.
Due to Israeli checkpoints, it took 50 minutes to travel the 15 kilometers (9 miles) to the marathon’s starting point. There are over 500 barriers such as roadblocks, checkpoints, and earth mounds that limit Palestinian movement by vehicle on West Bank roads, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“We can’t do the full marathon over here in Bethlehem because of the occupation,” Sharaf said, gasping for breath as he ran alongside the separation wall, “but it is okay, we will survive,” he added with a smile.
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Zak Jarallah, a 30-year-old Palestinian living in Dubai, traveled just to run the marathon and said the experience was exhilarating, yet overwhelming.
“Having a lot of Palestinians in the square (Manger Square), hearing music and seeing Palestinian flags, people celebrating and cheering and everyone clapping, for a moment it felt as if the occupation did not exist,” he said.
He added that it was his second visit to Palestine, and he was deeply moved by the reality of the lack of movement of Palestinians living inside the walls.
“To be able to run and go through it, gives you mixed feelings, from a physical sense to be able to stretch your legs, to move it is quiet easy and you can feel that sense of freedom of movement but at the same time you are running next to the wall and you are reminded that you are confined to this small space,” Jarallah added.
As part of the route, the runners pass through the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps, which have been home to Palestinian refugees since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 following the Arab-Israeli War. In 1967 Israel seized the remaining Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians call this date the “Nakba” meaning catastrophe as 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homelands and displaced.
“The right to movement is a human right, and the Palestine Marathon is a celebration of our Palestinian, resistance and existence,” says Dalal Radwan, a Palestinian journalism educator who ran half of the marathon.
This year’s winner was Chakib al-Ashqar, 33, from Morocco.
“This is the first time I visit Palestine,” al-Ashqar told Wafa news agency. “Visiting Palestine was my wish since childhood.”