Runners From Palestine Journey to Beirut to Exercise Their Freedom to Move
By Bob Ramsak | Nov. 17, 2015
BEIRUT, LEBANON – Seasoned marathon runners often talk about hitting “the wall”, that latter stage of a race when mental and physical barriers move from being difficult to really, really difficult.
Organizers and participants of the now annual Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem have additional walls, very real ones, to consider before they even take their first step. One, the Separation Barrier that divides the West Bank city, is among the reasons that 3,200 runners participated in the race last April to claim, for at least a few hours, their freedom to move.
“We don’t even control a 42.2 kilometer stretch of road in the West Bank,” said Diala Isid, an organizer of the race. “So runners need to pass the same route four times in order to finish the full marathon. Because that’s the only road that we are in control over, and the only road that we can close because of the Israeli occupation.”
Isid, an architect from Ramallah, was among a dozen runners from Palestine who came to race in last Sunday’s Banque du Liban Beirut Marathon and to raise awareness of Right to Movement, a nonprofit organization that uses running to focus attention on what it sees as one of the most basic of human rights: the right to move.
Article 13 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement”. But, organizers say, not everyone has that option.
Palestinians, Isid said, “are deprived of that right.”
The constraints are indeed numerous.
According to B’Teselem, an Israeli human rights organization, there were 96 fixed checkpoints in the West Bank in April along with 361 temporary “flying” checkpoints. Additionally, between 300 and 500 other physical obstructions -dirt embankments, concrete blocks, trenches and iron gates- have been counted monthly since the beginning of 2010. There are also roads forbidden to Palestinians, as well as the looming Separation Barrier, the 26-foot-high wall which surrounds the city on three sides.
Even the group’s journey to the Lebanese capital, which covered a distance of just 140 kilometers, took 14 hours and required transport on seven buses, one mini van and an airplane, illustrated just how difficult movement can be for Palestinians in their part of the world.
“If I ran from Jerusalem to here, I would have been faster,” said George Zeidan, a financial officer from East Jerusalem and a co-founder of the race. “Maybe by just minutes, but I would have been faster.”
Founded in April 2013 as a conceptual by-product of that year’s inaugural Palestine Marathon, Right to Movement has since grown to include more than one thousand members from 13 communities in nine countries.
“We run for those and with those who are deprived of that right,” Asid said during a presentation at a runners’ forum, Run4Good, at Beirut Arab University. “We run to tell stories. We run to build bridges instead of walls. And we run to inspire you to do the same.”
Seven hundred runners participated in the race’s first edition. In 2014 it attracted two thousand runners and grew to 3,200 from 49 countries this past April. It boasts a route that clearly fits the organization’s motto, “We run to tell a different story”.
Beginning at Nativity Square, it runs along the Separation Barrier -the “Apartheid Wall” to Palestinians- and by Israeli settlements. It also passes through two refugee camps before finishing at the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the world’s oldest existing church and birthplace of Christ.
“There are three watch towers along the course,” said Maha Khamis, a lawyer from Bethlehem. “We have a picture that we use that shows a soldier in the tower pointing his gun down as runners pass.”
Zeidan likens the scene to what one would expect to see on the fringes of a battlefield from the Middle Ages. Or in a video game.
“That’s the reality,” Khamis said.
Sharing that reality was one of the reasons the group made their journey to Beirut. Another was because they want to continue to improve and grow their own marathon.
“It’s the largest and best organized in the region,” Zeidan said. “Being here helps us to further professionalize our event. Organizing a top quality event is just as important to us as the freedom to move.”
For several members of the group, Beirut was their first attempt at the marathon distance, an experience, they said, that will allow them to use the challenges and barriers encountered in running and finishing a marathon to conquer those they face in their day-to-day lives.
“Our barriers in life are much harder than in the marathon,” said Victor Qawas, a hair stylist from Ramallah, with a wide smile. “The marathon is the fun part. But still, the barriers in the marathon will help you overcome the barriers in you have in real life.”
“I see the marathon kind of as a lesson for life,” said Abu Rmeileh, who like Qawas ran and finished her first 42.2 kilometer race. “You face hard times and hardships but you learn that you won’t give up, you keep going because you have a set goal that you want to reach. I think that’s a very good lesson for life – that even if you feel at times that you want to quit, there’s always hope.”
Tala Qaddoura, also from Ramallah, said, “The biggest challenge in the marathon and also in real life is to reach your full potential. You’re always challenged to go through your ups and your downs and hope you make it to the finish line successfully.”
“It’s different but it represents a reality in life,” said Zeidan. “You get tired, you get bored, you get fed up, but you’re going forward so you try your best. You give it all you’ve got.”
“The difference is that in the marathon you know you will get to the finish line successfully. You don’t know if it will be the same in life, especially in Palestine.”