On 27 March 2015, over 3,000 runners from more than 50 countries participated in the 3rd annual Palestine Marathon event, completing 10 km, 21.1 km, or 42.2 km to demonstrate Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the Right to Freedom of Movement.
A story about human rights with running shoes
A full marathon course can not be laid out within the boundaries of the Separation Barrier/Wall that encircles Bethlehem, so runners must complete the length of a 10.25 km stretch of road four times in order to make the full distance of the Palestine Marathon. Some participants opted for a shorter race, competing in the 10 km or, like I did, chose the half-marathon event instead. In the case of the 10 or 21 km, competitors passed along this section of wall under the watchful eye of the Israeli Defence Force [IDF] only twice, instead of four laps as in the full marathon.
And that’s what the Palestine Marathon is about – a non-political, non-religious, non-violent resistance to the occupation, which is also about reclaiming one of the 30 basic human rights set out by the UN following World War II: the Right to the Freedom of Movement. Because this right is (and many others are) severely restricted for Palestinians, the Palestine Marathon gives people in the West Bank or Gaza the opportunity to put on a pair of trainers and claim back the right to movement for themselves.
The winner of this year’s  42.2 km race is 2008 Beijing Olympian Nader al-Masri from Gaza, who finished first in 2 hours 57 minutes. al-Masri’s story is especially important here because he competed for the first time in Palestine, thanks to receiving the necessary permits from the Israeli government to travel from Gaza City to Bethlehem the day before the race – demonstrating another aspect of what this event is about, that is, not just physical but systemised restrictions on movement as well.
Lest you think the Palestine Marathon is all about checkpoints and 10-metre [26-feet] high concrete walls guarded by soldiers with machine guns, we were also treated to views of hills around Bethlehem, like the photo below, showing red-roofed white stucco settlements with mansion blocks in neat concentric rings, always on top of the hill, always on the look-out towards the Palestinian towns:
On that note, a highly recommended read to learn more about settlements and other features of the occupation is the book “Hollow Land” by Eyal Weizman. But I digress…
“Trouble shared is a trouble halved”
What I really wanted to share about this event, and my participation in it, is firstly the importance of why people came from all over the world to join Palestinian runners in celebrating and increasing awareness of a basic human right many of us may take for granted, as stated in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified 10 December 1948:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Let me put it this way – thanks to nearly a century of religious and political finagling, so many Palestinian people do not enjoy the human right to move freely around in the nation of their birth (just two examples include not being allowed to access family farms or workplaces to prohibiting Palestinians from visiting relatives in town where they grew up, and the list goes on).
Sure, it was a difficult and technical course with quite a few hilly sections, and it was 25*C [nearly 80*F] besides. Added to the heat was the emotional response on the first encounter of the insidious grey barrier that grips Bethlehem on three sides – I felt like I’d been punched in the chest, and I was suffocated by anger, frustration, and sorrow all at once. The Wall felt so close I could hardly breathe, the thudding of my heart in my ears not quite drowning out the noise of the F-16 jet overhead.
The second run-by of the wall was easier than the first, I’m almost ashamed to say, one, because it takes an astonishingly short time to “normalise” the presence of occupation when it feels that nothing can be done about it, and two, I remembered that because I’m not Palestinian, I have the freedom to pass through the wall at any time I like, unhindered (if I don’t mind the endless interrogation at the checkpoint because I might have met some Arab people, that is…) Three, the F-16 was gone and just about forgotten, after having twice-made the point that our event was noted by the Israeli military.
As I kept running, the course became almost effortless with so many friendly people who cheered and encouraged us to push on, despite the wall, despite the heat. Of course, there were scores of kids eager to give each runner a boost with a high-five, a cup of water, and a few sections of giant, luscious orange from some orchard nearby.
There’s much more to say yet I’m finding it hard to convey in just a few sentences my experience of this marathon. I mean, I’ve done other half-marathon events before, and this was by far the most difficult and meaningful of all: running here in this beautiful country enabled me to share an experience with an international running community, express my solidarity with Palestinian people, and bring back home “a different story” about Palestine.
Runners and/or spectators, I can HIGHLY recommend this sporting event next year, especially if you’re looking for something a bit alternative… but sign up as soon as it goes online, because places sell out quickly! And last but not least, runners earn a unique finishing medal to be treasured, handcrafted by local artisans of olive wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Have trainers, will travel… I am looking forward to next year!
p.s., no matter what anyone tells you, Afteem’s is the best falafal of the three in that row, and that’s probably not a genuinely licensed Starbucks franchise adjacent to Manger Square. 😉 It’s still pretty good coffee though and it’s the only place in the world to buy a souvenir mug with the Starbucks Bethlehem logo. 🙂
More about the Right to Movement and the Palestine Marathon
- Read more about the Palestine Marathon on their official website – includes race results and more
- Learn more about the Right to Movement coalition and related running groups all over the world
- The Palestine Marathon on Facebook
Press about the 2015 Palestine Marathon
- “In Four Loops, Marathon conveys Palestinian constraints” by Diaa Hadid for the New York Times – 1 April 2015
- “Palestinian Marathon Defies Israeli Restrictions on Movement” by Zhang Jin, edited by YangYang for CRIEnglish.com – 28 March 2015 – with photo gallery
- “Palestine Marathon highlights race for recognition” by Oren Liebermann for CNN Online – 28 March 2015 – with video, 2:08
- “Exercising the Right to Movement in the Palestine Marathon” by Ariel Cohen for Jerusalem Post – 29 March 2015 – photo gallery
- “Running between the walls in the Palestine Marathon” by Ahmed Al-Bazz for +972 Magazine – 29 March 2015 – with photo gallery
- “Runners ‘hit the wall’ in the 3rd Palestine Marathon” in Ha’aretz Online – 29 March 2015 – “Held in the West Bank city, the marathon was won by Gazan runner Nader al-Masri [2:57], whose house was destroyed in last summer’s war.”
- “UN: Palestine Marathon draws attention to the Right to Freedom of Movement” by IMEMC News & Agencies – PNN – 27 March 2015