Israel has allowed 46 athletes passage from Gaza to the West Bank to partake in the Palestine marathon on Friday, easing its policy of strict separation between the two Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian Olympic Committee requested entry permits for 55 runners ahead of the third annual marathon to be held in Bethlehem, nine of which were rejected by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Palestinian coordination officer reported. One of the athletes granted permission is Nader al-Masri, a champion runner who was refused entry in the past and appealed to the Israeli High Court through Gisha, an Israeli NGO specializing in Palestinian freedom of movement.
In 2014, no Gaza residents were allowed to enter the West Bank for the marathon, which is also billed as a protest in favor of Palestinian freedom of movement. Israel has moved to isolate the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip from the West Bank since Hamas’s violent takeover of the coastal enclave in the summer of 2007, a policy it began easing in recent months by allowing residents and agricultural produce to leave the Strip.
Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Soccer Association, has been pushing to remove Israel from the Union of European Football Associations for its curtailing of Gazan athletes’ freedom of movement. On Wednesday, UEFA president Michel Platini warned Israel Soccer Association chairman Avi Luzon that Rajoub’s efforts are “serious” and may gain international traction, Israeli news website Ynet reported.
In a press statement issued Thursday, Gisha asserted that Rajoub’s diplomatic pressure, coupled with its own court appeal — in which the justices requested Israeli authorities to consider allowing in Gaza athletes — brought about the Israeli change of policy. Two months ago, COGAT replaced its restrictive list of athletic fields whose athletes are eligible to request permits with a blanket rule allowing all members of national teams to cross from Gaza to the West Bank, and leave abroad.
But that policy is not being applied consistently, Gisha argued. Earlier this month, the Palestinian beach soccer team was not allowed to leave Gaza to participate in a qualifying championship in Qatar. “Given that Israel already recognized that national team athletes should be allowed to travel to realize their potential, it should strive to apply this recognition more consistently,” Gisha wrote.
“Israel has understood that it can’t forbid athletes with no security files to participate in so central an event,” the organization continued. “It may have also realized that there’s no point conducting its relations with the PA on the backs of benevolent citizens.”
COGAT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.