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SAfrican runner wins Palestine Marathon

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Thousands of Palestinian and international runners from 64 countries participated in the fourth annual Palestine Marathon in the West Bank city of Bethlehem Friday morning. The run was held under the banner of the right to freedom of movement, a theme that was accented by Israel’s concrete separation wall along which much of the route was forced to follow.

Mervin Steenkamp of South Africa won the race with a 2:35:26 finish.

The marathon, which started at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square and passed through two refugee camps, Aida and Dheisheh, included two full loops. The wall, along with the Israeli military checkpoints that surround Bethlehem and nearby villages and towns, made finding a full marathon route difficult if not impossible.

The Israeli army had 96 permanent checkpoints in the West Bank as of April 2015, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Only 39 of those checkpoints separate the West Bank from Israel; the rest restrict Palestinian movement within the occupied territory.

In addition to manned checkpoints, Israeli troops deploy hundreds of physical obstructions (roadblocks, mounds of dirt, etc.) hampering free Palestinian movement inside the West Bank.

Israeli security forces have deployed some 90 new obstacles to Palestinian movement in the West Bank since the latest round of violence began in October 2015, according a UN study conducted in the last week of December.

Mervin Steenkamp celebrates his victory
Mervin Steenkamp celebrates his victory

Some restrictions have since been eased, although Israel in recent months has repeatedly implemented a policy of putting entire villages under days-long lockdowns following stabbing attacks perpetrated by residents from those locations. Considering that the perpetrators themselves are either taken into custody or killed during the attacks, such moves can be seen only as collective punishment.

“Freedom of movement is not only a right in itself, but is essential for the enjoyment of many other human rights,” the office of the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities said in a statement on Friday. “Restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by Israel on the occupied Palestinian territory permeate almost all facets of everyday life and continue to separate Palestinians and fragment the territory.”

Organizers said that as of Thursday evening, 4,371 people had registered to participate in the marathon, the largest number ever, although the Israeli army denied travel permits to 100 registered runners from the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the military body that controls where and when Palestinians can travel, particularly between Gaza and the West Bank and Israel, blamed Palestinian officials for filing the permit applications too late to be processed.

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, say they submitted the applications at least a week in advance. As a result, at least 102 Palestinian runners from Gaza, including the victor of last year’s marathon, Olympian Nader al-Masri, were unable to participate.

But it is ultimately the runners who must pay the price for the negligence of both Israeli and Palestinian officials and bodies, said Shai Grunberg, spokesperson for Israeli rights group Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. It is very unfortunate that COGAT chose a sporting event “in order to take sweepingly punitive steps against all those Gazans who applied for permits,” she added.

“As many of us join this celebratory event, we remain acutely aware of the many barriers to freedom of movement faced by Palestinians every day,” UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities Robert Piper added. “I am sorry to hear that Gazan runners, including last year’s Marathon winner Nader al-Masri, have not been granted permits by the Israeli authorities to participate in today’s event for example.”

Israel has landed itself in hot water in recent years for the restrictions it places on Palestinian athletes. In 2015, Israel nearly faced expulsion from FIFA, the international soccer organization, for the denial of entry and exit permits to Palestinian soccer players and restrictions on the import of sports equipment.

As part of the agreement that prevented that expulsion process going forward, Israel agreed to ease restrictions on Palestinian soccer players, although it seems that agreement did not apply to other sports.

[Source: +972]
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