CityFront: Running for Politics?

As Meretz city councillors contest the route of the Jerusalem Marathon, which includes Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line, Arab residents seem to be taking the widely publicized mega-event in their stride.

barkat ny marathon 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
barkat ny marathon 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The driver of the No. 71 bus (from Gilo to Ramot) seemed particularly stressed on Sunday morning. The rain turned the already difficult traffic in the city center into a nightmare and, he told a passenger, he was seriously considering changing jobs. Asked if the upcoming marathon was making matters worse, he and his friend, who was also a bus driver, answered in unison, “Lady, we’re running away to New York for the week of the marathon!” On March 25, Jerusalem’s first international marathon will take place for runners from all over the world. The full route will go through a few locations in east Jerusalem, namely Ammunition Hill (between Sheikh Jarrah and French Hill), the Augusta Victoria Hospital on Mount Scopus and Jaffa and Zion gates, alongside the Old City walls.
“It will attract tourists who do not usually come – young people who are interested in sports events and not only in history and religion,” explains a source at the municipal sports department.
At a press conference at the Tower of David Museum earlier this week, Mayor Nir Barkat, who has already begun training for the race, said, “The route is breathtaking, not that I didn’t already know how beautiful Jerusalem was, but running along the marathon route is a great way to rediscover that, especially for the runners who will be seeing it for the first time.”
But it seems that this harmonious image is not shared by everyone, and attempts to cancel, or at least boycott, the event are being made. Despite these efforts, Jews and Arabs who spoke to In Jerusalem are not bothered by the route.
The Palestinian Authority is concerned that a marathon through Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line will strengthen attempts to diminish its presence in the city. The Meretz faction on the city council is in favor of the marathon but is fiercely opposed to its route, as the party’s official position favors a divided capital as part of two states.
Some of the merchants in the city center and in the Mahaneh Yehuda market fear that closing the main streets might compromise their business. In the meantime, the Mahaneh Yehuda Merchants’ Association has announced that the market will be open until 11 p.m. on the two nights preceding the run.
As for the Arab merchants and residents, they are not sure how the marathon will affect them. Says tour guide Said Abu Shakr, “The marathon could attract more tourists – and thus more income,” but Abu Rahma, a merchant at the market near Jaffa Gate, says he doubts that anything good will come of it.
“The police will block off all the streets, so who will come here to buy anything? I think only the other [Jewish] side of the city will profit. As for us, our main problem is the very high [property] tax, and this marathon is not going to solve anything.”
Asked if they minded that the route is on both sides of the Green Line, Abu Shakr says with an ironic smile, “What does it have to do with us?” Jawad, a taxi driver in his early 30s, says in impeccable Hebrew that he prefers to work with tourists instead of struggling all day long with the traffic in the city. He is looking forward to the marathon and isn’t bothered about the route.
“I live in reality, not in a dream. But what bothers me is that nobody thought that we, the residents of east Jerusalem, are part of all this. Has anyone published anything in the Arab newspapers about the marathon being a means of promoting tourism here? Have any of the organizers bothered to take us into account? No, we simply do not exist!”
IT WAS Barkat’s idea to turn the annual half marathon into a full-length international After finishing the New York Marathon, Barkat, a veteran runner, announced his decision to launch a marathon in Jerusalem. Adidas was chosen as a sponsor, and it looks like it will be a successful event.
In Meretz, the marathon was not considered a problem until the route was revealed. City council member Pepe Allalu admits he even likes the idea, but adds, “This route is a provocation by Barkat. He wants to show that he is in control and that Jerusalem is like any other city. But there is no way the Palestinians will remain silent, not to mention the security implications here. Who will provide security for the runners? The border patrols? And who will take responsibility for the stones that will be thrown at the runners? Who needs this?” Meir Margalit, also a Meretz city councillor, is even harsher.
“We made a public statement calling for a change to the route, and we informed Adidas of the problematic route, calling on them to boycott this marathon instead of sponsoring it.”
So far, Adidas has not canceled its sponsorship. The local representative of the company, Dini Dario, agreed only to say that Adidas supports sport, which brings people together. Sources at the company who prefer to remain anonymous say they have found no evidence of segregation, discrimination or any sort of injustice toward Arab residents in the framework of the marathon, adding that an event lasting a few hours, which will have no impact on the lives of Palestinians and with registration open to all, is no reason to cancel its support.
Meanwhile, as the official campaign for the marathon continues, another campaign by supporters of the Palestinian cause, here and in Europe, is continuing. For Husam Zomlot, holder of the international affairs portfolio of Fatah at the Palestinian National Council, the situation is clear.
“This marathon is illegal and must be stopped. We have nothing against sports events, but as long as Israel does not recognize east Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, we of course reject this kind of event. We are happy to see that the international community is launching a civil movement and has already convinced Adidas to cancel its participation.”
Upon hearing from this journalist that Adidas is not considering canceling its sponsorship, Zomlot adds just that “what matters is the international civil campaign.”
However, Zomlot confirms that so far no appeal to the UN has been made by the PA on this matter.
An interesting look from the outside is provided by Dr. Bruno Coppieters, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels, who is working on a comparative study of the organization of marathons in divided cities, including Brussels, Belfast and Beirut.
“None of these places has seen serious political disputes projected onto the route of the marathon, and the marathons have been organized successfully for many years,” he explains.
“I wanted to know why in Jerusalem a dispute had erupted even before the start of the first marathon.
Different choices were made in Jerusalem concerning the organization of its first international marathon.
In contrast to other marathons, the initiative to organize the event was not taken by a sports organization but by the mayor of the city, who is himself a marathon runner. The responsibility for its organization was not shared with a sports organization but became the exclusive responsibility of the municipal authorities.
“Nir Barkat is a key figure in the national and international debates about the future of Jerusalem because his responsibilities as mayor include granting new construction permits in the city. Concerning the terms of a future settlement, he has opposed the idea that the city should be divided. On the contrary, he has supported plans for the vast expansion of housing in east Jerusalem for the Jewish population. The fact that the mayor has very principled but at the same time contested views on the future of east Jerusalem and that he has taken full responsibility for the marathon has led to disputes about its route,” he says.
Coppieters, who ran in the Beirut marathon in 2007 and the Belfast marathon in 2010, believes that the types of values chosen by the Jerusalem marathon organizers might explain the polemic.
“Contrary to the marathons in Brussels, Belfast and Beirut, the organizers do not limit themselves to the traditional health, sports and charitable values or to an appeal to visit the city. They also state on their website that ‘the selected running tracks narrate the story of Jerusalem in the course of 3,000 years of this city's history.’ The problem with such an approach is that a historical narrative and the political values associated with it are by definition not consensual in a divided city. It associates the battle of 1967 at Ammunition Hill – where a memorial site has been built – with the liberation and unification of Jerusalem. A description politically loaded, in a divided city, is potentially provocative.”
Margalit admits that so far the result of their campaign toward Adidas has not been very successful.
“Former ambassador Alon Liel tried to mediate on a voluntary basis, but so far not much has come out of it. We still hope they will at least declare that they are funding only the parts of the marathon inside the Green Line.” •