Running For Palestine

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In a powerful symbolic act aimed at reclaiming one more basic right denied - the right to movement - 3,200 runners from across Palestine and over 50 countries joined the third annual Palestine International Marathon in Bethlehem last weekend, running for not just time but peace, freedom, recognition - including the recognition that West Bank life under Israeli Occupation is so constricted residents cannot walk, nor runners run, 26 miles without confronting a checkpoint. In a final, humbling, heartbreaking coda, all three versions of the race were won by Gazans, whose victories these days are so few.

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The race was organized by the Palestine Olympic Committee and the Right to Movement, a non-profit, non-religious organization started by two Danish women in Jerusalem focused on "running for the human right to freedom of movement." In its third and biggest year, the race included a 10-K, half marathon and full marathon. Over 72% of this year's participants were Palestinian, with about 40% women and girls; they included 50 runners from Gaza denied entry by Israel last year. Organizers chose Bethlehem so the entire course would be within Area A and Palestinian control. Because there is no 42.195 kilometer stretch in the West Bank not intersected by the Apartheid Wall, checkpoints or settlements, the course made two loops, starting in Manger Square and running along the Wall, through two refugee camps and back again.

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Spectators - both residents of Bethlehem and international visitors - came out in droves to cheer for the runners, passing out water and homemade snacks. Because there is nothing that is not political here, many cited a palpable sense of solidarity. Said one Spanish runner, “It’s good to run for Palestine...Every time I see the wall I feel troubled, but I am amazed today to see hope in the Palestinians’ eyes while running around their city.” From a Belgian runner, "Today sport is more than sport - it's a symbol of living together."

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The winner of the full marathon was Nader al-Masri from Gaza, who was refused entry last year but appealed to the Israeli High Court through Israeli NGO Gisha. The tenacity of the Gazans was in full, startling, bittersweet display: Despite or perhaps because of the extraordinary hardships of their lives - how do you train without proper food, water, shelter? - Gazans also took first and second in the half marathon and in the 10-K. Said al-Masri, “This victory is for Gaza, it is for my family, my teachers, my friends and all those that suffer and resist in my country.”

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