Peace Group Has Run-Ins With Israeli Military
Israelis and Palestinians jog to foster friendship, but Army sees weekly gathering as potential threat and bans runs in the occupied territories
BETHLEHEM, OCCUPIED WEST BANK
WALID ABU SROUR claims he was asleep in his home at the Aida Palestinian refugee camp recently when Israeli soldiers burst in, dragged him outside and delivered an unusual message. ``They asked me if I am running for peace,'' says the barrel-chested Abu Srour. ``And then they said to me, `It's forbidden for you to run with the Jews. If you run with them we will punish you all the time.'''
Abu Srour, a money-changer, says the soldiers then used their fists and rifle butts to beat him, while dragging him down a road in his nightclothes before letting him go.
Abu Srour's experience with the military is only the latest chapter in a saga of troubles experienced by Runners for Peace, an eight-month-old running club of about 100 Palestinians and Israelis - many United States 'emigr'es - who use jogging as a means to meet each other.
The Israeli Army spokesman agrees that soldiers scuffled with Abu Srour at about 1 a.m. on April 17. But, after a preliminary investigation, the military said that the father of five refused to cooperate with soldiers who sought to question him outside his home about a stone-throwing episode.
So the troops ``used proportionately correct force,'' subdued him, and then questioned him on the spot before leaving, says Maj. Moshe Fogel, an Israeli military spokesman.
Leftist parliament member Ran Cohen of the tiny Citizens Rights Party says he does not doubt Abu Srour's version. Mr. Cohen, a reserve colonel in the Israeli Army, has asked the military to investigate the case, and also to examine in general allegations that Arab members of the group have been harassed by troops.
``It's just running. You can imagine what kind of occupation we have,'' says Cohen, who has on occasion joined group members for their easy 30-minute Friday runs.
The sporting activity has indeed caused a stir in the military, which considers the organization political in nature. The commander of the Bethlehem district has banned the weekly Friday runs in Bethlehem, or anywhere in the Israeli-occupied territories.
``It doesn't matter if they run, walk, or crawl,'' says Major Fogel. ``It's a large group, a gathering, which could develop into a demonstration of some sort that could get out of hand and cause casualties and the like.''
AS many as 40 people, including teenagers, have taken part in the Friday runs, now held inside Israel proper in both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Founder Hillel Bardin says the group members get together afterward at a runner's home, where they sip tea and get to know each other.
One aspect of the runs which irked the military, Mr. Bardin says, is that members wear white cotton T-shirts on which is emblazoned the slogan ``We want peace between Palestine and Israel, each free and secure,'' in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The shirts have red, green, black, and blue colors on them - the colors combined of the outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization and the flag of Israel.
Mr. Bardin, a computer programmer, has jogged for about 10 years. He also works, almost full-time, organizing meetings between Palestinians and Israelis. It struck him one day that he could combine both interests.
Running, he says, ``overcomes some shyness. After sweating and puffing, it somehow makes it easier to talk.''
BEFORE the military banned the activity in Bethlehem, Bardin says he brought his 13-year-old daughter and other youngsters along on a run to demonstrate something he says would surprise many Israelis:
``Running in Bethlehem is not a dangerous thing. Just like being a tourist in Bethlehem is safe,'' he says.
``Runners and walkers are not a target. Cars are the target. And if you identify yourself as somebody who wants peace, you are immediately welcome by the Palestinians.''
Although the ban remains in force, Bardin says he and other club members continue to meet with military authorities to try to get it lifted. Cohen, too, has argued with Israeli authorities on the runners' behalf.
``I claim in my letter to the defense minister,'' the parliamentarian says, ``that if it will not be possible to run toward peace, and talk about peace, then the alternative is war.''