Thousands protest Israeli restrictions in Palestinian marathon
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Thousands protest Israeli restrictions in Palestinian marathon

Gazans unable to take part in annual ‘Right to Movement’ race, as security officials blame lack of time to review travel requests

Participants run along Israel's security barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the 4th Palestine Marathon on April 1, 2016. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
Participants run along Israel's security barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the 4th Palestine Marathon on April 1, 2016. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

More than 4,000 people participated Friday in a marathon through Bethlehem designed to highlight travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians by Israel.

First conceived in 2013, the fourth annual Palestine Marathon, also known as the “Right to Movement” marathon, set out from the Church of the Nativity past Israel’s security barrier, which cuts around much of the city, before passing Duheisha refugee camp and the town of al-Khader, near the Gilo military checkpoint, the Ma’an News agency reported.

“Restriction on movement is one of the major challenges for the Palestinian people living under occupation. Palestinians cannot move freely on roads, or from one city to another,” the marathon’s organizers from the Right to Movement group had written on their website.

Israel denied entry permits to over 100 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip seeking to take part in the race after an administrative dispute, officials said.

Participants run along Israel's security barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the 4th Palestine Marathon on April 1, 2016. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)
Participants run along Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the 4th Palestine Marathon on April 1, 2016. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for implementing government policies in the Palestinian territories, said the forms for 101 runners from Gaza were “submitted in too short notice and given a timeframe which is not the adequate amount of time for dealing with such requests.”

In a Facebook post, COGAT accused Palestinian officials of intentionally turning in the forms late in a bid to delegitimize ‪Israel‬ with bad press.

Yet again, recreational sports are being used to delegitimize #Israel by #Palestinian leadership. Those in charge of…

Posted by COGAT – Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories on Wednesday, 30 March 2016

George Zeidan, one of the marathon’s organizers, told AFP an initial list of 750 names was rejected. When a shorter one was sent it was then refused for being too late, he added.

Last year, the Palestinian Olympic Committee requested entry permits for 55 runners of which Israel allowed 46 passage from Gaza to the West Bank.

Participants run along Israel's security barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the 4th Palestine Marathon on April 1, 2016. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)
Participants at the start the Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem on April 1, 2016. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Among the Gazans prevented from traveling ahead of Friday’s marathon in the West Bank was reigning champion and Olympian Nader al-Masri. Al-Masri has been refused entry into the West Bank in the past. In 2015 he appealed to the Israeli High Court through Gisha, an Israeli NGO specializing in Palestinian freedom of movement.

This year, said Gisha, civilians had been caught in an administrative dispute.

“We are disappointed, if not surprised, to hear that civilians in Gaza are again paying the price for the apparent negligence and disregard of both Israeli and Palestinian officials,” a statement said.

The Israeli NGO, however, took specific aim at COGAT for not taking a more pragmatic approach to issue. “Even if the request came later than expected, COGAT could have reviewed the request, at the very least for those participants who have received permits in the past and are well-known to officials, like Olympian runner and last year’s marathon winner, Nader al Masri. This would have been a demonstration of good faith and good sportsmanship.

“Instead,” ended the statement, “COGAT chose to reject all 101 participants in a sweeping and seemingly punitive gesture.”

Because the Palestinian Authority does not control a contiguous 42 kilometers, or 26 miles, in the Bethlehem area — the distance of a full Olympic marathon — the run was instead forced to loop around an 11.2-kilometer (seven-mile) stretch.

Nearly 4,400 runners took part in this year’s marathon — up from 3,100 last year— with a record 46 percent of them women, up from the 39% that joined 2015’s run, Ma’an reported.

AFP and Elhanan Miller contributed to this report

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