Israel has refused to grant permission to 26 runners from the Gaza Strip to travel to the West Bank to run in the first Bethlehem marathon on April 21, officials said on Thursday.
The race, which begins at the Nativity Church, is the first event of its kind in the West Bank with more than 400 people registered to run, half of whom are Palestinians, organisers say.
But a group of runners from the Gaza Strip who signed up for the race, have been denied permission to travel by the COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry unit responsible for coordinating civilian affairs with the Palestinians.
According to Gisha, an Israeli watchdog which works to facilitate Palestinian freedom of movement, the group includes Olympic runner Nader al-Masri and another four people who had registered to run the full 42.2 kilometres (26 miles) and six who signed up for the 21.1 km half marathon.
Among the group is one woman runner and four trainers.
“The request of 26 Gaza residents to take part in the Bethlehem marathon was examined by the relevant authorities and it was decided to reject the request because it does not fall within the determined criteria for crossing from Gaza to the West Bank,” a COGAT statement said.
Gaza residents can only travel to the West Bank for “exceptional humanitarian reasons with an emphasis on urgent medical cases,” it stressed.
Etidal Abdelghani, deputy Director General of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, a co-sponsor of the event along with the Palestinian Authority, said Israel had rejected the request without saying why.
“We applied for permission for 22 runners from Gaza to participate in the Bethlehem marathon which will be held on Sunday and Israel banned all of them from coming to the West Bank without giving any reason,” she told AFP.
“This proves that Israel is still an occupier and trying to prevent movement in many sectors, including sports, which goes against all international sporting agreements.”
Many of the runners had registered to participate in the United Nations’ annual Gaza marathon on April 10 but it was cancelled at the last minute after the Islamist Hamas authorities who govern the enclave said they would not let women and men run together.
The news was a blow to Gazans who had been training hard for the event.
“I don’t know why the Israelis are like this, it is just a sport and has nothing to do with politics,” said 28-year-old Sanaa al-Bakhit, the only woman in the group who had been due to run in the 5 km event.
“In Gaza, Hamas doesn’t want (women) to run and now the Israelis will not give us permits” to run in the West Bank, she said.
Masri, the Palestinians’ most successful runner, said he had been excited at the thought of competing against runners from the West Bank.
“I spent three months training for this marathon and the one in Gaza which was also cancelled. I wanted to take part in this historic Palestinian marathon with runners from both the West Bank and Gaza,” he said.
“The Israeli side is always the problem. We are athletes, not a security threat, but we cannot force them to let us pass.”
Gisha Director Sari Bashi, herself a veteran marathon runner, is leading an appeal on behalf of the runners who only have until sundown on Friday to secure permission to travel before the Erez crossing closes for the Jewish Sabbath.
“As a marathon runner, as a woman, and as a human rights lawyer, I cannot understand why Israel would refuse to allow Palestinian runners to participate in the only Palestinian marathon left, the only marathon event in which women can participate,” she told AFP.
“Running is a celebration of the human spirit, and these runners from Gaza deserve the chance to compete.”
The race, which is called the “Right to Movement Palestine Marathon,” will take runners on a tour of Bethlehem, a hilly southern West Bank town which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus. The course will pass through at least two refugee camps.