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Israel's refusal to allow Gazans to compete in West Bank's first marathon 'tainted event with politics'

Twenty-six Palestinians – including an Olympian – were preventing from entering Bethlehem, which hosted some 500 runners from more than 30 countries for the competition.

Participants in the Right to Movement Palestinian Marathon pass an Israeli guard tower and  'separation barrier,' as they run in Bethlehem.
Participants in the Right to Movement Palestinian Marathon pass an Israeli guard tower and 'separation barrier,' as they run in Bethlehem.

RAMALLAH // Israel's refusal to allow Gazans to participate in the first marathon held in the West Bank yesterday tinged the event with politics that organisers sought to avoid.

Twenty-six Palestinians were informed last week that they could not exit the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip for Bethlehem, which hosted some 500 runners from more than 30 countries for the competition.

The Right to Movement Palestine Marathon, organised by two Danish women runners, was planned as an alternative to a United Nations-sponsored marathon in Gaza that was cancelled last month because the territory's Islamist Hamas rulers refused to allow women to participate.

Among the Gazans denied entry was the Olympian Nader Al Masri and Sanaa Abu Bahit, 29, a woman who planned on running in the UN event.

"This isn't supposed to be political," said Signe Fischer, one of the organisers. "It's just people encouraging other people to put on their shoes and run."

Several runners showed their solidarity with the Gazan athletes before the race with an announcement expressing regret about their inability to participate, she said, adding that a "lot of Palestinians and internationals today are running with their Gaza counterparts in mind".

Braving a cold rain, Abdel Nasser Awajneh, a Palestinian from Jericho, was first in the men's full marathon with a time of 3:09:47. He was followed by two other Palestinians, Moataz Almasalmi in second place and Vehia Al Jamal, in third.

In the women's race, Christine Gebler, from the Palestinian Territories, was first with a time of 3:36:37, followed by Emily Sargent-Beasely, from the US , and Alison Smith, from Britain, in third.

The event also included a half marathon as well as 10km and 5km runs.

Marathon runners had to do two laps of the course after organisers were not able to find an uninterrupted 42-kilometre stretch within Area A, the small portion of the Israeli-occupied West Bank which is under full Palestinian control.

The race was held the same day as the London Marathon. More than 35,000 runners observed 30 seconds of silence on the start line to remember those killed and injured by the blasts near the finish of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

The Palestinian Olympic Committee requested permission to travel to the West Bank from Israel on behalf of the 22 runners and four trainers.

Israel's defence ministry said it denied the request because the marathon "does not meet the criteria set in order to transfer from Gaza to the West Bank".

Israel has the right to deny such travel because Gaza is run by the Hamas "terror organisation [that] wages war against the state of Israel and its civilians", the defence ministry said.

Israel imposed a blockade in 2007 when Gaza came under the control of Hamas, which has a history of attacking Israelis.

Israel controls all crossings connecting Gaza and the West Bank and routinely forbids Palestinian travel between the two, denying them access to universities and family in the respective territories.

Officials from the West Bank's Palestinian Authority condemned Israel's decision to deny Gazans entry to the marathon, calling it discriminatory and a violation of international law. Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem are wanted for a Palestinian state but have remained under Israeli occupation since 1967.

"Israel cannot treat Gaza as if it's a separate entity," said Nour Odeh, spokeswoman for the PA. "It is not, and international law is clear about that."

In a memorandum dated May 2011, Israel's defence ministry laid out 16 conditions, such as medical treatment, for permitting travel from Gaza. Another permits travel to the West Bank and abroad for members of the Palestinian national football team.

Mr Masri, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Games, said he had not the faintest idea why marathon runners were excluded from that list. "We're not political but the occupation is blind to that," said the 33-year-old runner, who had been training for three months by running on Gaza's beach road.

"All I can say is that I'm sad."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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