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Days before the race, news agencies reported on the Gaza-based Olympian who was barred from participating. The Olympian was among a group of runners denied travel permits out of the Hamas-ruled territory by Israel. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization because of the hundreds of Israelis killed by its attacks. As a result, most of the population cannot travel beyond Gaza’s borders.
It’s restrictions like those that led a Danish aid worker to come up with the marathon idea. “The idea came to me one day, as I was waiting in a checkpoint. Palestinians’ inability to move was what struck me the most,” said marathon co-founder Signe Fischer, who works for the Danish foreign ministry. She also co-founded the Right to Movement organization.
Fischer teamed up with Palestinian organizations and municipalities and created the first marathon with a focus on free movement for all people.
In an ironic turn of events last year, Fischer had to ask two Israelis to withdraw the night before the race. She and her co-organizers cited the Jewish runners’ safety as a concern. Israelis are not legally allowed in Palestinian-controlled areas without a special permit. Tears were shed as Fischer said, “It hurts to call someone and say you can’t run…. Now I know what it feels like to be an anti-Semite.”
A documentary film crew caught this scene and others leading up to last year’s race. I watched the film the night before the race, in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, in the shadow of the Church of the Nativity and the city’s only mosque. When the movie finished, runners scattered in the cool air to find warm beds. We were due back in the square — the race’s start and finish point — in a few hours. I needed to find Fadi Asiwat.
Asiwat was a 24-year old swimming coach and my home stay host. We met on a Facebook page for runners in East Jerusalem. When I posted to the page, asking about good places to stay, he offered a room. He was also running the half marathon the next morning.
As we drove to his home, Asiwat told me that before the wall, the drive to Bethlehem was less than 10 minutes. Twenty-five minutes into our ride, we crossed to East Jerusalem from the West Bank with a nod from the checkpoint guards. Asiwat said my fair skin and blue eyes probably helped us avoid a time-consuming check.
As we descended into the Jabal Al-Mukaber valley, Asiwat pointed out Jewish settlements and Arab villages facing each other on different sides of the hill. I asked if he had any Jewish friends. “I work with Jewish people at the pool where I lifeguard. I say hello to people on the street. We’re decent to each other,” he said. When I asked him if he’d mind if Israelis ran in the race, he was hesitant. “Yes, it’s about sports,” he said. “But every Palestinian has hurt in their heart. It would be hard.”
In my room, a fruit basket and a bowl of nuts awaited.
“Arab hospitality. You are always welcome,” Asiwat said, And with that, he wished me a good night.
The next morning, Manger Square was bursting with energy. Top 40 hits played loudly, as Danish girls in tank tops warmed up alongside women in hijabs. Young Palestinian men danced in a circle, shaking their shoulders in unison. Runners smoked cigarettes while stretching.
“Why are you here?” I asked the runners around me.