A tale of two marathons: the politics of the big races in Israel and Palestine

This month's marathons in Jerusalem and Bethlehem took runners through difficult history, old and new

Participants run past a section of Israel's controversial barrier in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. AFP
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Israel and Palestine are home to two extraordinary marathons.

And both races, which took place this month, are also extraordinarily political.

The Palestine Marathon starts and ends at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

It also runs along a stretch of Israel’s occupied West Bank barrier, a vast concrete security fence that the International Court of Justice deemed illegal in 2004.

Aseel Ahamdan, who started running only a year ago, told The National that Palestinians such as her “ran for freedom”.

The very circuit of the race symbolises that struggle of Palestinians to be free. Rather than having one single 42km course, organisers repeat a circuit twice.

The marathon’s was designed to raise awareness about “one of the basic human rights that is under threat in the state of Palestine: The freedom of movement", its website says.

It says: “Runners anywhere may ‘hit a wall’ under the physical and emotional strain of completing the 42km race course. In the state of Palestine, runners literally hit the wall.”

It is a reference to the security barrier that Israel says prevents Palestinian attacks within Israeli territory.

The wall went up during the Second Intifada, a deadly years-long outbreak of violence that led to the deaths of more than 5,000 Palestinians and about 1,400 Israelis.

The Jerusalem Marathon takes runners past the holiest sites in Christianity and Judaism, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall.

It also goes past the third holiest site in Islam, Al Aqsa Mosque, located on a site that has been religiously contested for millennia.

In modern times, the compound is often a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly during Ramadan that begins this week.

But today, tension in Jerusalem is not simply based on partisan hatred between some Jews and Muslims.

This year’s Jerusalem Marathon showed that it is also about bitter political questions between Israeli Jews.

As this year’s race wound down and workers cleared metal fences in time for Shabbat, five Israeli students stayed by Jaffa Gate, the main entrance to the Old City, until the very end.

They were holding anti-government placards and never stopped shouting criticism of Israel’s new government. led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Their biggest placard depicted Mr Netanyahu, often known as Bibi, as a participant, under the caption “running from the authorities”. It was a reference to Mr Netanyahu’s continuing corruption trial.

Critics of the Prime Minister say that the government’s current domestic policy priority — passing hugely controversial legal reforms — is part of a bid to have him acquitted of those charges.

“We’ve been standing here cheering people, even those that shout back at us in anger,” said one of the students. “Many are supportive. We’re just vibing.”

As they stood there, two teenage runners screamed “only Bibi” at their small demonstration.

“We love you,” the students cried back.

But the overall atmosphere was far from loving.

“One small boy came up to me and waved a sign in my face that said ‘no to co-existence’ in Hebrew,” the student organiser told The National.

“One of the Hebrew letters in ‘co-existence’ was written in the shape of a gun,” she said.

'Beautifully brutal'

Nonetheless, for many participants, the races were above all else happy and unique experiences.

British runner Colin told The National that finishing the half version of the Jerusalem marathon was “beautifully brutal”.

A week before, him and his wife finished the race in Palestine.

“It was amazing to run through so much history in one trip,” he said.

But for others, particularly those that live here, this year's difficult politics were unavoidable.

The demonstrating students got their biggest cheers from runners draped in Israel flags, who chanted the simple rallying cry of the protest movement, “democracy!”

Those runners crossed the finish line in Sacher Park, in the shadow of the country’s Supreme Court.

If the new government’s reforms to overhaul what it views as an disproportionally powerful judiciary are successful, next year’s race could finish overlooked by a far weaker version of the court, which is as old as Israel itself.

The student protesters said that would be terrible for co-existence between Israel’s many communities, as well as with its Palestinian neighbours.

“We’re fighting for the rights of all of us, even for those who scream at us in anger as they run past.”

And in Bethlehem, no matter how many runners finish with chants of “free Palestine”, the second “runners' wall” — the security barrier — will almost certainly loom over the circuit for many years to come.

Updated: March 25, 2023, 8:28 AM