Gaza Blockade Stifles Dreams of Palestinian Runner

For Olympian Nader el-Masri, the greatest challenge is to get Israel to let him out of the Gaza Strip.

Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir
Nader el-Masri runs in Gaza, April 2014
Nader el-Masri runs in Gaza, April 2014Credit: AP
Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir

Athletes put their sweat and their souls into training for the big event, the one they have been waiting for. Sometimes a bothersome injury, financial hardship or a failure gets between them and the big competition, but when it comes to the highest-ranking Palestinian marathon runner, leaving Gaza for the race taking place in Bethlehem depends on circumstances more powerful than running. That is the tense situation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which dictates restricted movement between Gaza and the West Bank, leaving Nader el-Masri out of the Palestinian marathon he wants so desperately to take part in.

Without going deeply into the statutes that allow traffic between Gaza and the West Bank and the their legitimacy in terms of security, here is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of a courageous marathon runner from Gaza: even if he managed to overcome a constant bank overdraft and feed his five children, el-Masri, 34, has no idea whether, or when, he will be allowed to compete outside of the Gaza Strip.

When the Olympic Games were held in Atlanta in 1996, el-Masri, then 16, watched Majdi Abu Marahil, the first athlete to represent Palestine, carrying the flag. Although Abu Marahil came in last in the 10,000-meter race, he fired el-Masri’s imagination, who was then on his school’s soccer team. “Even after a soccer match, I always had the urge to run two or three kilometers,” el-Masri says. “I started running late, only at 18, but talent, endurance and love for running set me apart from the others. I loved running because it was individual; it’s just you and your effort.”

Like athletes all over the world, he, too, understood quickly that running was an esoteric sport, certainly compared to soccer. “When I started running, people in the Gaza Strip saw me training and said, ‘Who’s that thin kid? What’s he running for?’” He recalls how he climbed from complete anonymity to the heart of the consensus when he participated in the 500-meter run in the Beijing Olympics, fulfilling his life’s dream. “After the 2008 games and the press coverage that followed, I’m already a famous person at the local level in Gaza, almost a star.”

He trains twice a day, two hours in the morning and three in the evening. “I don’t go out much, and I don’t participate in social events. I’m entirely devoted to running,” he says with an enthusiasm that the Hebrew-Arabic interpreter conveys as well. He must support his wife and children on NIS 2000 ($577) per month that he receives from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. From this sum, he must also pay for his subscription to the gym and buy food, vitamins and a great deal of meat. In case you were wondering, his bank balance is always below zero.

The Rafah crossing was open from mid-2010 to last year, allowing el-Masri to go abroad via Egypt. Since he was a Palestinian representative, other countries helped fund his flight and lodging when he attended competitions. While his fellow competitors from Arab countries received pocket money of more than $1,500, he made do with one-fifth of that. Although he was hardly able to support himself abroad and telephone his family, el-Masri was content with what he had as long as he was allowed to reach the starting line, wherever in the world the competition was taking place. But the Rafiah crossing was closed to traffic last year, and once again el-Masri was dependent on the kindness of the Israeli authorities.

On March 31, he was supposed to participate in the World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen, but his request was denied. He has been in marathon training for four years, and contents himself with events such as those organized by UNRWA in Gaza. He ran 42 kilometers — along the Gaza coastal road, uphill and down, with the wind coming from the sea — in two hours and forty minutes. He believes that he could shave off fifteen minutes from that time in more reasonable conditions and make the criterion for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “It’s not so far beyond me,” he says. “I dream of taking part in one more Olympic Games and representing the Palestinian people honorably before I retire.”

Together with 30 other runners from Gaza, he sought to attend the race in Bethlehem and was turned down, among other reasons because the request was made as a group and submitted at the last moment. This year, he decided to submit a request on his own to Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, about two months before the race, which will take place in Bethlehem on Friday. But his request was turned down in the High Court of Justice this week.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I would really like to run in the Palestinian marathon so I can have a window of opportunity to go abroad. Considering the results of the runners in the West Bank, I figure I would win and get to represent the PA in Europe, which would help me a bit financially. The Israeli authorities refused and gave no reason, and that’s disappointing. I’ll keep on training and I’ll submit a request for the next race. We are athletes who love sports. I won’t stop trying despite the catastrophic conditions, regarding freedom of movement, that I live in.”

El-Masri says that he has nothing to do with politics and that he is definitely not a security threat. Israel’s refusal surprised and saddened him, but the unexpected seems to be part of his day-to-day life. “We live this reality all the time. One day they can tell you, ‘Go outside to Bethlehem,’ and the next day they could say, ‘Today you’re not allowed to leave your home.’ I have to adapt to these changes even though sports are not supposed to be affected by politics, but in practice, that is what happens. If I were involved in politics and they had a problem with me, I could understand it, but I am an athlete only and I don’t understand why they are treating me as if I were something other than that. I don’t even have a social life, and I don’t participate in family events. I can’t understand the decision, which isn’t about me but about other issues, and I have to suffer.”

How does your wife deal with your running? Doesn’t she expect you to find a profession that will get you more than NIS 2,000 per month?

“There are no jobs in the Gaza Strip in any case, and there is high unemployment. I train morning and evening, so I’m exhausted and can’t work another job. In the past, I thought about retiring so I could support myself and my family better. Sometimes, when we are under heavy financial pressure, my wife tells me, ‘Maybe you should get out of it,’ but most of the time she supports me, particularly when I go out to competitions abroad that can get us a better income. I live constantly in hope that I will be able to make a living just from being an athlete.”

El-Masri trains in his home region of Beit Hanun. He doesn't train in a stadium or athletic field, but in an open terrain that he has chosen for his purpose. He runs without a trainer, and recently discovered three young runners whom he is grooming. “By the time I retire in another two to three years, I will become a trainer and they will be ready,” says the man who was never officially invited to a competition in Israel. When he was asked unofficially in 2010 whether he would be willing to participate in an Israeli marathon, he did not say no, but the date overlapped with a competition in Asia that he had already registered for.

That is how el-Masri rolls — or, rather, runs. At night he dreams of the fame of the Olympic Games and wakes up to the bleak reality in the Gaza Strip. “I train optimistically,” he says. “When I ran in Jenin, it was at a time when the Rafah crossing and the Erez checkpoint were closed, so it was almost a miracle that I managed to get out. The PA had already prepared an athlete from the West Bank to fly out in my place, but with God’s help and Gisha’s assistance, I managed it.”

So what do you think is the biggest challenge — completing a marathon or ending this conflict already?

“It looks like it’s much harder to end this conflict, certainly for me. I would like to tell the Israelis who read this article that I am an athlete, and I would like to be allowed to participate in competitions at least on my own soil, in the Palestinian territories.”

April 4, 2008 file photo: Nader el-Masri holds the shirt he will be wearing when competing in the 2008 OlympicsCredit: AP

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