To Run a Marathon: Beyond Politics, Across the Separation Barrier

Passing the starting line of the first Palestine Marathon, I put aside the fact that Israeli law prohibits me from attending, and that the Palestinian Authority ordered I not participate: I had to come and run.

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As the 42-kilometer race begins, some 200 runners and I push through the red-green-and-blue balloon arch that marks the starting line of the first Palestinian marathon in the West Bank – a race that Israeli law prohibits me from attending, that the Palestinian Authority ordered I not run, that the organizers tried to bar me from. But I had to come to run.

The road ahead is long and likely painful, but like my fellow runners – Palestinians, Brits, and Scandinavians for the most part, with some other Europeans and Americans – I love running and I've come to take part in an historic race.

I won’t lie; I was scared at first. I’ve never been to the Palestinian territories before and I felt threatened, but I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by.

I arrived the day before the race to pick up my runner’s kit complete with Palestinian flag scarf, Palestinian flag pin, marathon T-shirt, tote bag, race number to pin to my chest and a chip to record my time. The media center had already closed so I went to speak to Lise Ring, one of the two Danish women running the event.

“There might be a problem," she said. "Do you know who Jibril Rajoub is?” I answered in the affirmative; Rajoub is a former Palestinian security chief and now head of the Palestinian Football Association and the Palestinian Olympics Committee. “Well, he doesn’t want Israelis to participate in the race; also the Israel Defense Forces said it would not allow Israelis to take part. We are going to have a meeting with them later on.”

I said I understood and gave her my number. She would call after the meeting. “I’m sorry. I’m in over my head,” she said.

While I waited for the call, I went to the Church of the Nativity and took in its impressive Byzantine sights. I met with human rights activists for dinner and at the hostel, as I prepared to sleep, Lise called. There was no use; I cannot run, she told me.

But I had traveled to Bethlehem alone by public transportation. I made up my mind; I was here and I was going to run.

The next day, after a small breakfast with colleagues, they drove me to the old city by car. We walked up to the starting point at Manger Square, the site where, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is believed to have been born. The race started some 20 minutes late, giving me a chance to talk to some of the participants: A group from London, a runner named Devon, who came to raise money for the Palestinians, Palestinian schoolchildren, and Scandinavian volunteers. There were some speeches and eventually we were told to go to the starting line.

The race started down Manger Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. As we ran down the street, I struck up a conversation with Frank Dhondt, a Belgian who finished fifth. He is a city planner working for the UN in Jerusalem and Ramallah. This is his third marathon this year, his 50th in the last decade.

“I did the Jerusalem Marathon and I was looking for something to happen in the West Bank," he told me. "The Gaza Marathon was canceled, unfortunately. So when I read about this one, I said I have to do it, even if it is only five days after Boston.”

Manger Street ends abruptly at the separation barrier Israel constructed. An IDF pillbox towers over the wall, blackened by the fire bombs hurled at it over the years. Further along the wall, as I continue to run, I see it is covered with graffiti, mostly calling for a “Free Palestine."

The route continued down another of Bethlehem's main streets, lined with businesses and homes, Palestinian governmental institutions and schools and charitable works supported by churches and European countries. Armed Palestinian police officers stand on every corner. Locals lined the streets or peered out of windows cheering us on.

We run to some of the surrounding towns and refugee camps, which feature massive gates and huge keys, to remind those who enter that the residents still hold the keys to the homes they left behind in Israel, even if they've been demolished in some cases.

After about an hour it started pouring. It was so cold that when one of my shoelaces got undone, my frozen fingers couldn't tie it again. A boy standing nearby, who saw me struggle, tied them for me.

I ran beside several fellow marathoners, including George Zeidan, a Christian living in the Old City of Jerusalem. He works at a Danish non-profit and led a running group that helped train more than 50 runners who ran mostly in the shorter distance races.

When I asked why he didn’t run in the Jerusalem Marathon he said: “Well, my Palestinian friends who have West Bank IDs are not allowed to run in that marathon. So I’m not running...It’s a racist marathon.”

“The slogan of the marathon calls for the Jewish unity of Jerusalem," he went on. "I don’t have any problem with the Jewish religion ... Jerusalem is not a Jewish city - there are Muslims and Christians and Jews. I suggest they allow everybody to participate without discriminating on the basis of religion or where you’re from,” he said.

“Would you like to see Israelis running here?” I asked, telling him as I did everyone else, that I am Canadian.

“If they run with peace and solidarity, I don’t mind seeing them, but if they have any other goal behind running here I don’t want to see them,” he replied.

Heidi Sorensen from Denmark ran the half marathon. “I love running and solidarity with the Palestinian people,” she said. She was hoping to complete the run in under 1:50 but it took her four seconds longer than she hoped, finishing in 36th place.

I had also hoped to break my personal best and run the marathon in under 3:50 but I came in 23rd completing the exhausting route in 3:58.

I’m not disappointed, though. I had a great time, overcame my fears, and met some wonderful people. There may be more marathons in my future, but none like this.

Elon Gilad is an editor and writer at Haaretz.

Participants arrive at the finish line during a marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 21, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Belgian runner Frank Dhondt came in 5th in the Bethlehem Marathon on April 21, 2013.Credit: Elon Gilad

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