For Jews and Muslims, too, Bethlehem holds religious and cultural significance. Rachel’s Tomb in the ancient city is holy to adherents of all three monotheistic faiths; and Islam considers Jesus a major prophet. Cognizant of these realities, in 1947 the UN tried to insulate Bethlehem from the Zionist-Arab conflict over Palestine, including it with Jerusalem in a corpus separatum. It is only 8.57 kilometers from Manger Square to the sacred sites in Jerusalem.
But the festivities on the day of the race have nothing to do with religion. Hundreds of bright-colored balloons bob in the air above the crowd’s heads. Upbeat music blares from the speakers. Kids get their faces painted, giggling when the occasional balloon escapes skyward. A man walks around handing out small cups of coffee. Some of the runners, lean and hard-bodied, look like they have trained for months. Most have entered the 10k or 5k races that accompany the marathon, half-marathon and family fun run. Others at the start line are fleshier; they have come for the rare chance to stroll through the ancient city unhindered by traffic. Everyone, Palestinians and foreigners, is smiling.
The race organizers are pleased by their success. The Palestine Marathon, like its counterparts elsewhere, is meant to be a feel-good event. But it also has a political point: to highlight restrictions on movement for all Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The Palestinian Authority’s Higher Council of Youth and Sports serve as the race’s organizers and they want foreign marathoners to get a glimpse of Palestinians’ daily experiences.
For most foreigners, coming to Bethlehem from points north, the lesson begins before arrival. The corpus separatum remained a sketch on paper, as did the rest of the UN’s peace plan, and today Bethlehem and Jerusalem are estranged by a 26-foot-high concrete wall – perhaps the most widely recognized symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Israel began building the barrier in 2000, as the second intifada began and the Oslo peace process fizzled; it assumed its current looming dimensions in 2003. According to proponents, the wall is about the security of Israel within the 1948 armistice lines, which the world considers the borders of the Jewish state. Yet the row of concrete slabs dips deep into the West Bank, which the world considers occupied Palestinian territory, in effect illegally annexing prime real estate to Israel. The wall confines Palestinians to densely populated enclaves with restricted mobility while giving Israelis – and Jewish settlers in the West Bank – room to stretch out and move.
The lesson continues with the particulars of the race. First, there is not 26 miles of continuous road to traverse in today’s Bethlehem. In the marathon’s early years, organizers laid out an 11-kilometer course that runners completed four times. In the past two years, when the Palestinian Authority’s Higher Council for Youth and Sports has put on the race, half-marathoners do a 13.1-mile lap around greater Bethlehem. Marathoners do it twice. But the course is not a loop; it defies geometrical classification. In the words of Raed Saadeh, who has helped develop hiking trails in Palestine, “The route shows that people are trapped. You cannot escape it. It’s like running in a chicken cage.”
From Manger Square, Bethlehem touristic center, the route heads toward the massive terminal called Checkpoint 300 just over a mile away. At the checkpoint, Israeli soldiers peer at Palestinians’ papers: Only those with valid Israeli-issued permits can pass into Jerusalem. Next the route passes The Walled Off, the sardonically named hotel designed by the British artist Banksy, and ambles down the road along Israel’s separation wall. Watchtowers sit atop the barrier every 300 yards or so. Graffiti covers the wall from top to bottom: In one painting, Muhammad Ali stands in his iconic pose over Sonny Liston in 1965. But there’s no representation of Liston; instead, it’s a watchtower at Ali’s feet. In another mural, Donald Trump kisses a guard post. Runners chatter about the transnational symbolism through their heavy breathing.
Soon the runners pass the Azza refugee camp before entering the Aida refugee camp’s Key of Return gate. Nearly every Palestinian refugee family keeps the old iron key to homes in the nearly 500 villages and towns from which they were displaced in 1948, when Israel declared independence. UN Resolution 194 promises them a right to return or compensation for their losses, as many homes were razed. The residents of Aida are out to cheer and distribute water. Inside the camp, the route goes by a school operated by the UN Relief Works Agency, pockmarked by Israeli army bullets, before squeezing through an alley. Exiting Aida, runners are treated to vistas of hills dotted with olive trees, before passing Dheisheh, the third refugee camp in greater Bethlehem.
Around the 9-kilometer mark, the scenery changes. The buildings are smaller but just as close together. There is farm land, with grapes on the vines. In the distance is Highway 60, which Palestinians call “Settler Road” because it connects the Jewish settlements around Bethlehem to others on the way south to Hebron. Highway 60 can be dangerous for Palestinian drivers, whose cars are marked by white license plates to differentiate them from yellow plates issued in Israel. Most Palestinians opt to stay put. The settlements – planned suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with gleaming adobe walls and uniform red roofs – sit on the hilltops.
The jaunts off the main road do not last long, however. The route soon turns back into downtown Bethlehem before reaching a congested finish line. Manger Square is full of jubilant people, Palestinians and foreigners, panting runners and non-athletes enjoying the fresh air.
Municipal officials point to the race’s rapid growth and the diversity of the participants. In 2013, 687 people ran, half of them non-Palestinians from 28 countries and 37 percent of them women. This year, organizers say nearly 7,000 people, with nearly 1000 foreigners coming from 70 different countries and 51.1 percent women, participated. This was the first race that I’ve ever run that had more women than men running in it. The world is also watching. In 2017, the International Association of Athletic Federation certified the Palestine Marathon.
The marathon has fueled the growth of Right to Movement running groups in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, Gaza and elsewhere. Bethlehem officials said the Palestinian Authority applied for 50 permits for Gazans to run in this year’s race. Israel granted just 14, and even those runners had such an ordeal in transit that they did not reach the start line until 1:30 pm. None of the Gazan runners got to race.
Palestine is the least likely place in the world for a marathon, given the movement restrictions imposed by Israel, both in getting in and in getting around. Yet, as in their daily life under occupation, Palestinians resist by organizing the race anyway. What’s the endgame? George Zeidan, a leader in Palestine’s running community, states it plainly. “All it takes is running shoes. We will keep running until we have our freedom and are able to run a full marathon starting at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem and finishing at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.” Sports in Palestine are a window into politics. They allow those living there to resist movement restrictions, allow outsiders to be educated and are empowering women. What remains unknown is how events like this will affect the untenable status quo as time marches on.