Gaza runners grounded in Gaza, barred from Bethlehem

April. 17, 2013: A month after the annual Gaza marathon was canceled, runners in Gaza face another obstacle: Israel has thus far refused to allow them to participate in next week's marathon in Bethlehem. The 21 men and one woman had trained for months for the planned April 11 marathon in the Gaza Strip, which was canceled by UNRWA after the Hamas government refused to allow women to participate. Now, Israel's military has refused a request from the Palestinian Olympic Committee to allow the runners to reach the West Bank to participate in the first marathon to be held there, on Sunday, April 21.
 
The runners, the race organizers, and Palestinian Olympic Committee President Jebril Al Rjoub have asked the Israeli military to reconsider the refusal, but no response has yet been given, even though tomorrow is the last day to issue permits for the group. Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement is appealing the refusal.
 
Gisha Director Sari Bashi, an experienced marathon runner who read with sadness and horror reports of the attack in Boston, expressed hope that Sunday's event in Bethlehem, with participation of all the Palestinian runners, would help restore the image of the marathon as an innocent, popular sporting event that brings out the best in both athletes and spectators.
 
Among the runners from Gaza are Nader Al Masri, who represented the Palestinian Olympic team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Sanaa Abu-Bahit, a 29-year old woman seeking to run the 5-km race in Bethlehem.
 
In her letter appealing the refusal, Gisha Legal Director Nomi Heger pointed out that Israel has in the past issued permits for Al Masri to travel via Erez Crossing, to reach trainings and competitions abroad and in the West Bank. She also noted that while travel via Erez Crossing is limited, each month the military allows thousands of Palestinians to enter Israel from Gaza, subject to security checks, and that it has defined participation in events sponsored by the Palestinian Authority – like the Bethlehem marathon – as justification for travel.
 
"Our clients, who trained intensively for the race which was to have taken place in Gaza, were deeply disappointed by its cancelation. They would be honored to participate in the first all-Palestinian marathon", Heger wrote.
 
Israel controls all crossings between Gaza and the West Bank, recognized in international agreements as a single territorial unit.
 
A group of Israeli runners have joined the request to allow their Palestinian counterparts to reach Bethlehem, sending faxes to the military asking to reconsider the refusal.
 
The Israeli military has criticized the Hamas regime for refusing to allow women to run in the Gaza marathon. Sunday's marathon would be the first to be held in the West Bank.