The so called “Right to Movement” Palestine Marathon that took place in Bethlehem this past Sunday bore an extra responsibility to foster good will and understanding as an international sporting event. The race came at the end of a week that saw two young radical Islamist terrorists detonate bombs near the Boston Marathon’s finish line slaughtering three spectators and wounding nearly 200. The Palestinian marathon was to show the redeeming power of sports to overcome the politically and ideologically driven hatred that killed and maimed so many of Boston’s runners and spectators.
The Palestinian race organizers and main sponsors – KVINFO, the Danish Center for Gender, Equality and Ethnicity, led by Danish runners Laerke Hein and Signe Fischer – planned the inaugural contest in Bethlehem to take place in tandem with the high-profile inaugural London Marathon, noting that they “wanted to show that the Palestinians are perfectly capable of hosting an international marathon,” adding that “the Palestine Marathon is about cultural exchange and understanding, and it is free of any political agenda.”
Palestinian Olympic Committee spokesman Samia Wazir also told the BBC that “the Israelis should look at this as purely a sporting event, it has nothing to do with politics.”
Really? If The Palestine Marathon had nothing to do with politics, it had everything to do with political warfare. It is likely the first marathon in the history of modern sports that categorically prohibited runners from Israel from taking part, banning Israeli Jews, Muslims and Druse athletes.
Palestinian Olympic committee member Itidal Abdul- Ghani told The Times of Israel on April 22, a day after the race, that “Israelis weren’t welcome to join the marathon while their military occupies Palestinian lands.” Haaretz reported that a number of Israeli runners were turned back and their registration fees returned.
The Palestinian Authority’s marathon policy places them in the company of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, whose BDS (Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions) sport campaigns prohibit their athletes from competing against Israelis and punish them for violating the boycott.
It seems a far cry from the London, Boston and New York marathons.
The Palestinian Marathon’s official site says the marathon was taking place because “restriction on movement is one of the major challenges for the Palestinian people living under occupation.
...[T]heir lands are controlled by a foreign army – that army controls their movement with roadblocks, checkpoints, military zones, an illegal wall and a complex set of discriminatory laws.”
The Palestinian News Agency MAAN’s Arabic edition noted that the marathon’s “Right to Movement” slogan was a demand to release Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi, who was jailed by Israel for shooting at an Israeli bus. Runners reportedly raised his picture at the Church of the Nativity and during the race.
The marathon’s official name, “Right to Movement,” stenciled in the PA flag’s green, red and black colors, adorned T-shirts handed out by the committee and worn by many of the 1,200 runners from Palestinian areas and some 25 countries.
The race’s route kept the runners – and the international media – looping around Bethlehem, next to 25-foot, graffiti-laden security barriers that read, “This is illegally occupied land” and “The wall must fall.” Photographs on the official marathon site featured the massive Key at one UN refugee camp near Bethlehem that signifies the return of 1948 refugees to Israel.
The race’s web site claimed that they could not find 42 kilometers to run the race.
However, had the Palestinian race committee wanted to hold a marathon, they could have designed a 42 Kilometer route from Bethlehem to any one of the Major Palestinian cities in Area A of the West Bank/ Judea Samaria running North-South and continuing for hundred kilometers which falls under full Palestinian Authority security and government control.
But an apolitical marathon would have failed to advance the PA’s use of the “Apartheid” libel against Israel that has served as a center piece of the PA strategy since they first used it at the 2001 Durban “Human rights” conference in South Africa.
Major-General Jibril Rajoub, the Palestine Marathon director, president of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and former PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s head of West Bank preventative security clarified any possible confusion over the sporting event’s character, telling MAAN that “this is a message to Israel that despite all its [efforts] the contest succeeded and exposed the savagery of occupation.”
Rajoub was referring specifically to Israel’s refusal to allow some 20 Palestinian residents of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to cross into Israel to reach PA-controlled Bethlehem in time for the marathon. He reserved his political attack for Israel, and not Hamas, who refused to allow women runners to compete in the recent Palestinian marathon held in Gaza due to modesty laws reflective of growing Salafist influence there.
The idea of a holding a bona fide Palestinian marathon is a good one.
Individual sports can be an effective way to help bridge differences and solve conflicts, even ones as intractable as that between Palestinians and Israelis. The Israel Tennis Centers have successfully trained Palestinians and Israelis to be topflight tennis players since 1975. Palestinian and Israeli runners have come together as fellow athletes in many of the world’s international marathons including those in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
But international standards ensuring equality and separating sports from politics must be upheld. The Association of International Marathons and Distance Races must not allow the Palestinian Marathon committee to hold future marathons if they prohibit Israeli athletes from participating or exploit these international sporting events to engage in political assaults.
We have seen all too clearly last week where the politics of rejection and hatred can lead.
The writer is a Foreign Policy Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.