BETHLEHEM -- A gloomy sky covers Bethlehem and chilly wind sweeps dust up the steep walkway to the Church of the Nativity. But despite the wintery weather, the town is celebrating. Merchants are hard at work, tourists flood the streets, and at every corner a policeman directs traffic with admirable patience.
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Sunday is a big day, a real test. Will the West Bank's first international marathon pass off peacefully? Can law enforcement possibly manage traffic in a town where drivers typically do whatever they want?
Last week’s events in Boston reverberate through the heads of the blue-uniformed Palestinian policemen, one of whom directs us from the parking lot.
“We certainly are prepared,” he insists.
Enormous marquees stand in Manger Square, where eager young Palestinians check in for the event. Most are members of the running teams that have sprouted up in the West Bank in recent months. For them, the significance of participating has nothing to do with their finishing time; rather it's representing their homeland with honor and taking part in the most exciting event in the territories.
The Palestine Marathon offers three distances: a full 42.2-kilometer (26-mile) marathon, a half marathon or a 10-kilometer race with routes starting at the Church of the Nativity and passing through several refugee camps.
The Bethlehem event, organized by Right to Movement, an umbrella non-governmental organization, and the Palestinian Higher Council of Youth and Sports, attracted over 250 foreign participants, according to organizers.
There are rumors that six Israelis wanted to register for the race, but apparently the Israel Defense Forces wasn't pleased with that idea.
Last week, Israel was slammed in the international press for refusing to issue travel documents to 21 men and one woman from Gaza who had hoped to compete in the event in Bethlehem, despite an official request from the head of the Palestine Olympic Committee, Jabril Rajoub.
It was the Gazan runners’ second missed opportunity to run a marathon within just a few weeks after the United Nations' relief agency cancelled its race in Gaza – scheduled for April 11 – in protest of a decision by Hamas to ban women from participating.
Runners in Bethlehem are looked upon with utmost respect. With my registration kit, I attract some attention.
“How far are you going to run?" asks Ibrahim, a local youth selling soft drinks and snacks nearby. My reply – "the long distance" – leaves him with his mouth open.
“I can't run one kilometer,” he says with a shy smile. “Maybe if I stop smoking…”
If the Palestinians manage to arrange another marathon next year, Ibrahim says, he will try to complete in the shortest distance.
His friends ridicule him. “He’ll never run – he’s stuck here all day in his father’s shop,” one says.
But Ibrahim won’t give in. “You’ll see,” he snaps at them.
Darkness falls, and the streets empty. Then comes bad news.
“We met with the Palestinian forces and were told we can't allow those from Israel to participate,” says race organizer Signe Fischer.
According to Fischer, the Danish company organizing the race isn't prepared to accommodate Israelis who broke the law by entering the Palestinian territories.
“We are really sorry, and will return your registration fee,” she says in a dry tone.
It appears that inside the Palestinian territories the “right to movement” is reserved for locals only, at least when it comes to running.
Outside, the final preparations continue. The roads are being cleaned ahead of the big event. No one can stop the first Palestine marathon – not even us.