My Word: On marathons and talks

UNRWA cannot be seen to condone the gender discrimination being enforced by Hamas on religious grounds.

Male and female winners of the Jerusalem marathon 370 (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Male and female winners of the Jerusalem marathon 370
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
It resembled “a dry run” for President Barack Obama’s visit later this month – most roads in the capital were closed and there was a heavy security presence. The atmosphere surrounding last Friday’s third International Jerusalem Marathon, however, was festive. Almost all my friends, colleagues and neighbors seem to have taken part in some capacity; those not actually running lined the streets to cheer on the 20,000 or so participants with genuine affection and admiration. I doubt Obama can expect such a show of support.
On March 15, Tel Aviv is scheduled to hold its Gillette International Marathon, being billed as a nonstop party, and also expecting a high turnout. Tel Aviv runners can enjoy the flat coast and view of the Mediterranean, whereas the Jerusalem participants had to contend with the famous biblical hills but benefited from the scenic backdrop of the Old City Walls. Wherever you run in Jerusalem, you run into history.
I’m not a marathon woman myself. Swimming is my sport. But I recognize the need for different strokes in both senses of the phrase.
The news this week of a marathon canceled indicated a painful step backwards. The marathon in Gaza sponsored by UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) had been scheduled for April 10 but the UN branch decided to call it off after the Hamas government in Gaza barred women from participating.
In past years, the UNRWA Gaza Marathon raised funds for the organization’s summer camps for local children – although the camps have also come under fire, sometimes literally, from Hamas supporters.
UNRWA cannot be seen to condone the gender discrimination being enforced by Hamas on religious grounds – especially as the announcement came just ahead of International Women’s Day, marked today.
I suppose members of the Free Gaza movement and its offshoots justify their ongoing efforts to support the increasingly Islamist regime there – no matter what it means for human rights – as long as they can fool themselves into believing that it is Israel that is oppressing the poor Gazans and not the government they themselves voted into power.
I can’t help but think that the race would have continued had Hamas officially said “No Jews or Israelis allowed.” But as it is, Gaza has become effectively Judenrein since the Israeli disengagement in 2005, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank seems to think this is the way it too should go, hence the demands to remove all Jewish presence from its areas in the event of a peace agreement.
I am not gloating at the turn of events concerning the Gazan runners. Given that just a few months ago missiles from Gaza hit both the greater Jerusalem and Tel Aviv areas, and only last week rockets were again fired on the Israeli South, I would much rather see signs of the Gazan government running forward, in step with the times. Unlike marathon running, running for shelter during a missile attack is nobody’s idea of fun.
The difference between the Jerusalem marathon and the event in Gaza that did not make it as far as the starter’s gun could not be greater. For all that Israel’s detractors like to portray it as an apartheid state and close to Iran in its religious attitudes to women, participants of all faiths and both genders put their best feet forward in the Jerusalem event, many running to raise money for charities including peace projects and women’s causes. And whether it was the remnants of Purim spirit, or Jerusalem’s own special effect, several were bedecked in outfits that could also serve them at a costume ball. The women wore what they wanted – and some didn’t want to wear very much.
The Palestinian Authority, by the way, called on international participants to boycott the event. Apparently running with women dressed as fairies and men in Superman costumes could be perceived as a sign of “normalization” and the route – which passed such landmarks as the Israeli parliament, Supreme Court and President’s Residence, as well as the Old City – might legitimize Israel’s rights to call Jerusalem its capital.
Despite the talk of “time running out” for peace negotiations and the need for confidence building steps, double standards abound.
Last month there was an uproar in the Palestinian street over the death in an Israeli prison of Arafat Jaradat, a Palestinian terror suspect – initial forensic signs indicated a heart attack, but accusations that he died under torture make a better story in a culture where the terrorist martyr is an icon.
This week, the Palestinian Authority prevented journalists from covering the death of Ayman Samarah, a resident of Jenin who was found dead in his prison cell in Jericho where he was being held on suspicion of stabbing a man during a fight. The man wasn’t Jewish, hence Samarah lacked the hero’s aura.
Also off the radar of most of the world media were the arrests by the PA last month of 66 Hamas supporters in the West Bank, according to the Gaza-based authorities.
The arrests are a sign that efforts to achieve a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah have failed.
Perhaps one of Obama’s envoys would like to tackle that breach first so that when Israel is urged to make concessions to the Palestinians it will be clear exactly who represents them.
Facilitating peace among the Palestinians, however, requires marathon talks that are unlikely to reach the finishing line – even limping.
I’d suggest British or European emissaries try to bring the PA and Hamas together, but I’m not sure they’d have a better chance of success – particularly in view of the attack this week on the car of the British consul-general in Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean. He was forced to leave Bir Zeit University after Palestinian students protested against his presence on campus, claiming, peculiarly to Israeli eyes, that the British government is ignoring the Palestinian cause and is biased in Israel’s favor.
I deplore the violent demonstration of anti- British sentiment, and if Sir Vincent wants empathy as well as sympathy, I suggest he sits down and chats with any of the Israelis who have recently been chased off university campuses in the UK. The Foreign Ministry could provide him with a list, including, for example, Alon Roth-Snir, Israel’s deputy ambassador in London who was last month forced to flee the University of Essex. Israeli emissaries might have the stamina for marathons, but they need to be prepared for a sprint.
Those thinking peace is going to come any time soon are letting their imaginations run away with them. On The Guardian’s website, for example, I came across an article on the Gaza event by Nabila Ramdani, “a Paris-born freelance journalist and academic of Algerian descent,” who apparently “was named a Young Global Leader 2012 by the World Economic Forum.”
She complained: “Hamas’s decision to ban women – 119 from abroad and 266 from Gaza itself – is wrong for all the most basic reasons. It is sexist, discriminatory and regressive, but – crucially – it wastes what should have been yet another huge blow against Israel’s illegal occupation and blockade of the Palestinian territories.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t complain that Hamas preferred to shoot itself in the foot rather than let men and women run freely together.
It’s obviously going to be a long time before they’re willing to let Israelis and Palestinians compete together for fun. Luckily, we’re not running away.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.