Over the winter, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine about running marathons in the Middle East. Racing to Rebuild the Middle East highlighted several marathons I ran over the course of a year, including Palestine’s first, put on by a group of runners called Right to Movement. Right to Movement (RtM) went on to run around the world advocating for the freedom from the wall and Israeli occupation — running is their means of protest, not violence. Last year, RtM, as planned, signed over the rights of the marathon to the Palestinian Olympic Committee, which had a larger base and requested it as a national event. There are now strong thoughts about that. Below is a runner’s view on the new marathon. He changed his name, as to not bring repercussions to the group.
A Hijacked Race: The 5th Palestine Marathon Represents Everything that is Wrong with the Palestinian Authority
By Buraq Sleibi*
When George Zeidan, a tall, resolute 27-year-old Palestinian basketball player and two Danish aid workers — inspired by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights mandate that all people have the “right to movement” — decided to organize a marathon in 2013, the goal was never to launch an international competitive running event. Rather the marathon had one sole objective: draw attention to free movement, women’s need for empowerment and the approbation of the disenfranchised in Palestine through a different means of protest.
The dream of the Right to Movement runners was certainly bold. To their dismay – and to no surprise – they could neither find a 42-km stretch of land that was completely under Palestinian Authority (PA) control, nor one that fit in Area A, as designated under the Oslo Accords. Most of us told them they were crazy and that the marathon would never be realized. Yet, they persisted. Initial plans had the marathon start in Bethlehem and proceed along Route 60, an Israeli-controlled road that connected Jerusalem to many of the Jewish settlements between Bethlehem and Hebron. But that would put the marathon and the runners in direct confrontation with the Israeli military and jeopardize completion of the race.
Palestinian officials – most notably the Palestine Olympic Committee (POC) – wanted the marathon on Route 60. The confrontation would make for good TV. The POC’s involvement from the very beginning was inevitable, needed and welcomed. The organizers of the marathon needed official endorsement – and the POC was the most obvious choice for this endorsement and partnership. But Right to Movement knew better than to end the dream of mass mobilization toward a global right to movement by making the marathon a media circus. The group eventually decided on an 11-km stretch of road outside Bethlehem to be traversed four times – certainly not ideal for a marathon runner, but the route made a statement without forcing conflict. Right to Movement ensured that runners would pass by the Apartheid Wall and through a refugee camp to experience the reality of our lives. But what would we achieve if they never wanted to return to Palestine? They made sure our good side was shown, as well.
As a lapsed athlete, I hated running. But the Right to Movement Palestine Marathon, for me, marked the first time since the end of the first Intifada and the establishment of the PA that I felt a part of something bigger. When I joined the Right to Movement runners, I joined a group of young Palestinian women and men – and their allies – who traveled around the world demonstrating that Palestinians would win their right to free movement. The media coverage around the Right to Movement Palestine Marathon reached a magnitude rarely achieved by any other non-violent event in Palestine. Rather than feel pity or sympathy towards Palestinians, the world began to recognize Palestinians as an unstoppable, yet peaceful, force that would fight for their land and their country using running shoes rather than guns as their weapons.
Five years later, Right to Movement had a competitive marathon nearly suitable for endorsement by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) and a national statement. But when the time came to plan the 2017 marathon, the POC decided to exclude the Right to Movement runners and to organize the marathon independently. By then, Right to Movement had four years of experience, but the POC invited a non-Palestinian group to put together the 2017 race, deliberately changing the name to the “Free Movement” Palestine Marathon. It reduced the marathon distance to 40.5 km instead of the 42-km standard. Rather than include local volunteer groups to mark and supply the route, runners went without a single thing to eat during the race, as well as signs to show the way. The parents and children of Bethlehem that formerly lined the routes to hand out dates and Gatorade for the past three years had little to celebrate on 31 March 2017.
The world replied. In 2016, 1,170 foreigners showed up to run; this year only 400 came. The number of people running the full marathon dropped from 270 to 99; the number running the half marathon dropped from 870 to 485. We had previously been on track to increase runners in these categories. But as several people were almost hit by cars along the route and more than 500 people did not receive their finisher medals, the Palestine marathon has taken two steps back without a way forward. The lack of international media presence only proved that the POC fulfilled the role most Palestinians consider systemic of the PA: a controlling elite that profits off the reality of the occupation, at the expense of civil society and the disenfranchisement of the local citizens.
It is a sad truth that the marathon has been hijacked, and become one of the many deceitful actions that take place on a daily basis by the PA. But the demise of the Right to Movement’s marathon has created a feeling inside of me and many other young people that we no longer belong here or have a voice. The Right to Movement runners hope to take back the marathon they started, but it’s not looking like. Sadly, the marathon has become yet another casualty in a constant war of attrition.
**Buraq Sleibi is a pseudonym selected to hide the identity of the author.