GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Runners from around the world will convene next week in Bethlehem to take part in the 7th International Palestine Marathon.
The marathon, organized by the Supreme Council for Sport and Youth Affairs in cooperation with the Bethlehem municipality, will take place on March 22. It was officially recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations in 2017 in what Palestinians considered a major achievement. It's another international win for Bethlehem, which was selected in in 2015 as the Capital of Arab Culture for 2020 by a UNESCO-affiliated committee of Arab Ministers of Culture in Qatar.
Ever since the first race in April 2013 brought together 213 Palestinians and 218 foreigners from 21 countries, the marathon has been a way to protest the checkpoints in the city, call for freedom of movement in the West Bank and draw attention to the Palestinian situation. This year’s marathon, with 7,000 runners expected, also aims to raise international awareness of the cultural heritage and political landscape of this historical city of Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem.
The marathon will pass through the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps in the city so runners can see how Palestinian refugees who migrated from their cities and villages from within Israel in 1948 are living.
The participants will run as far as Solomon's Pools at the village of Artas, 21 kilometers (13 miles) from Nativity Square before heading back. The pools, considered one of the oldest sites in Bethlehem, were constructed by King Solomon in 950 BCE and restored by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1537.
The marathon is also an invitation to tourists to visit the region and see the historical and cultural mix between the Islamic and Christian historical landmarks, Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman told Al-Monitor. For example, there is Grotto of Our Lady or Milk Grotto, located to the southeast of the Church of the Nativity, where a “drop of milk” of the Virgin Mary is said to have fallen on the floor of the cave and colored it white, and the Mosque of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the oldest in the city, built by the second Islamic caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab when he visited in 637.
On March 21 and 22, there will be street performances such as popular dabkeh dances and traditional songs, as well as a concert at the Nativity Square in Bethlehem on the eve of the race and another traditional music concert in the same square after the marathon.
Bethlehem Governor Kamel Hamid told Al-Monitor, “This sporting event and its cultural activities, such as the dabkeh performances and concerts, demonstrate the Palestinians’ sense of belonging to their land, architecture and the history of their presence on this land.”
He added, “Holding this marathon in Bethlehem, a holy city for all humanity since it is known as the cradle of Jesus Christ, who brought to the world a message of tolerance and peace, aims to draw the world’s attention to this place, which is now exposed to Israeli violations and attacks.”
Head of the Supreme Council for Sport and Youth Affairs Jibril Rajoub told the local press that the marathon aims to convey to the world the suffering of the Palestinian people under the Israeli occupation and restrictions on movement.
Rajoub explained that runners from 70 countries from around the world, including Britain, France, America, Brazil, Egypt and Jordan will take part in the marathon.
The participants may choose to take part in three major races: the 42-kilometer (26-mile) full marathon, the 21-kilometer (13-mile) half marathon and the 10-kilometer (6-mile) race.There is also a five-kilometer (three-mile) fun run.
The registration fee for the marathon is 70 shekels (about $20) and the price goes down as the races get shorter, director Etidal Abdel Ghani told Al-Monitor. Disabled people who want to participate in the 10-kilometer race can do so free of charge.
She said the council would give financial rewards worth $20,000 the winners of the three major races, to be divided equally between the top three male and the top three female winners of each race. Nearly half of registered runners are women.
Abdel Ghani explained that ever since the first marathon in 2013, the general objective has always been to defend freedom of movement for Palestinians in light of the restrictions Israel imposes inside the West Bank with barriers and checkpoints.
“The marathon will continue to carry the slogan of freedom of movement for Palestinians until we gain our freedom and independence from the Israeli occupation,” she said.
Hamid told Al-Monitor that Israel has erected many roadblocks inside Bethlehem, while 33 Israeli settlements built on over 18,000 dunums of land surround the governorate. The Israeli authorities also confiscated more than 283 dunums from the governorate to establish military bases there, he said.
Hamid pointed out that the wall extends 50 kilometers (31 miles) through the Bethlehem governorate, isolating over 160,000 dunums (39 acres) of land.