Israel bars Gaza runners from first West Bank marathon

A picture taken on 5 May 2011 shows a Palestinian policeman talking on the phone as Palestinian Olympic athlete Nader Masri (L) and a fellow runner speed along the waterfront in Gaza City as they compete in the Gaza Strip's marathon. (Photo: AFP - Marco Longari)

Published Thursday, April 18, 2013

Israel has refused to grant permission to 26 runners from the Gaza Strip to travel to the occupied West Bank to run in the first Bethlehem marathon on April 21, officials said on Thursday.

The race, which begins at the Nativity Church, is the first event of its kind in the West Bank with more than 400 people registered to run, half of whom are Palestinians, organizers say.

But a group of runners from the Gaza Strip who signed up for the race, have been denied permission to travel by the COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry unit responsible for coordinating civilian affairs with the Palestinians.

According to Gisha, an Israeli watchdog which works to facilitate Palestinian freedom of movement, the group includes Olympic runner Nader al-Masri and another four people who had registered to run the full 42.2 kilometers and six who signed up for the 21.1 km half marathon.

The request of 26 Gaza Strip residents to participate in the Bethlehem Marathon was examined by relevant authorities and denied since it was decided that it does not stand up to the criteria determined for passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” a spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told The Jerusalem Post.

“Gaza is controlled by a terror organization waging war against Israel and its citizens. In accordance with the decision of the Israeli government, supported by the Supreme Court, entry by residents of Gaza into Israel is only allowed in extreme humanitarian cases, especially cases requiring medical urgency. The runners’ request is not of this nature.”

A statement from COGAT added that Gaza residents would only be permitted to travel to the West Bank for "exceptional humanitarian reasons with an emphasis on urgent medical cases," saying that the request did not fall within that criteria.

The group also includes at least one woman runner and four trainers.

Many of the runners had registered to participate in the United Nations' annual Gaza marathon on April 10 but it was cancelled at the last minute after the Islamist Hamas authorities who govern the enclave said they would not let women and men run together.

Rejected applicant Nader al-Masri represented Palestine in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Gisha Director Sari Bashi, herself a veteran marathon runner, is leading an appeal on behalf of the runners who only have 24 hours left in which to secure permission to travel before the Erez crossing closes for the Jewish Sabbath.

The race, which is called the "Right to Movement Palestine Marathon," is the brainchild of two Danish women runners and will take participants on a tour of the hilly West Bank town, passing through several refugee camps.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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