Can this marathon help Palestinian cause?

Several years into its launch, the Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem received recognition from the International Association of Athletics Federations in yet another sporting achievement that conveys to the world that Palestine is capable of organizing such events despite the occupation obstacles.

al-monitor Participants run past the Israeli barrier during the annual Palestine Marathon in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 31, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.
Aziza Nofal

Aziza Nofal


Topics covered

israeli occupation, easter, tourism, bethlehem, west bank, freedom of movement, sports

Nov 5, 2017

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Five years into its launch, the Palestine Marathon has been officially recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on Oct. 13. The move came after Etidal Abdelghani, the director general of the marathon, received an official certificate of recognition from the IAAF, in what has been deemed as an international sporting achievement.

Abdelghani told Al-Monitor that this recognition is the culmination of five years of continuous work aimed at organizing the marathon in line with international standards. The recognition came after Norrie Williamson, a representative of IAAF, visited Bethlehem on Sept. 22.

The first marathon took place in April 2013 in the city of Bethlehem with the participation of 213 Palestinian and 218 foreigners from 21 countries; it was organized to protest against the checkpoints and call for the freedom of movement in the West Bank.

The number of people who registered to run in the 2017 Palestine Marathon amounted to 10,000 local and 6,200 foreign participants. This number is expected to increase for the 2018 marathon, scheduled for March 23.

Asked about the significance of such international recognition when international participants have already been taking part in the marathon over the past five years, Abdelghani said, “The name of the Palestinian Marathon is now on the international agenda. Any foreign athlete looking for an international marathon to participate in will have the Palestinian Marathon showing in their results, and any athlete seeking to achieve an international record will get to live a new experience.”

According to Abdelghani, the marathon started under the slogan of the right to movement and the need to overcome the obstacles set by Israel around the Palestinian cities and Bethlehem in particular. Add to this the religious significance of this holy city and the availability of the necessary services therein, such as hotels, health centers, entertainment centers and police services.

Abdelghani pointed to the important political message behind the organization of this marathon: to create a sports culture by highlighting the political issues and the rights that Palestinians have been denied, namely the freedom of movement.

In 2018, the marathon will be held during the Christian holidays, as tourism is revived during that period. This would allow athletes to benefit from the activities organized by the municipality and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. These activities include exhibitions as well as tours around the city.

The marathon’s start and finish lines are in Manger Square, which is usually packed with tourists during that time of year. Part of the marathon’s 42-kilometer (26-mile) route will go along the separation wall area in ​​Bethlehem.

Jiries Qumsiyeh, the spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor, “For us, this marathon is an important message to the world that Palestine is a touristic country capable of organizing large tourist and sporting events. It also aims to send a political message whereby this wall separating the city of Bethlehem from its twin city Jerusalem must fall.”

According to Qumsiyeh the marathon will be held at a period when tourism in Bethlehem and Jerusalem would be at its peak and hotel occupancy rates would be exceeding 90%, coinciding with Easter. The marathon will be an addition to the activities organized by the ministry to promote tourism in Palestine in preparation for the upcoming holiday season. We have included the marathon on the list of events that tourists can participate in during their visit to the holy lands.”

Mahmoud al-Saqqa, the spokesman for the Higher Council for Youth and Sports, told Al-Monitor that the most important aspect of this recognition is the political message behind it, which is a message of solidarity and recognition of Palestine as a state despite the occupation obstacles. The IAAF has recognized this marathon despite its distance not meeting the international standards requiring tracks of 42 uninterrupted kilometers. The IAAF accepted that the track be interrupted given the presence of checkpoints, the wall and several Israeli obstacles.

Saqqa added that the marathon, coupled with the high number of foreign participants, provides a new opportunity for Palestinians to explain their cause and prove their ability to work and organize such events despite all the obstacles imposed on them.

He said that this recognition creates more challenges for the Palestinians and prompts them to work continuously to further raise the level of the marathon so that such recognition breeds other recognitions. Marathoners are seeking to obtain a higher ranking from the IAAF. The Palestine Marathon currently has no ranking, as it has yet to hold its first post-recognition marathon.

Palestinians believe that the IAAF recognition of the Palestine Marathon is a new achievement to be added to the series of recent sports achievements, such as the Palestinian national soccer team winning the 2014 Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup. Such achievements can play out in favor of the recognition of the State of Palestine around the world.

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