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First West Bank marathon highlights barriers to Palestinian movement

Marathoners observed a moment of silence for the victims in the Boston attacks before running a landscape scarred by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

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Participants arrive at the finish line during a marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 21. While half of the participants in Sunday's event, which included a half marathon and a 10-km race on top of the full 42-km distance, were local Palestinians, runners from 11 different countries participated as well.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Visitors come to Bethlehem from all over because of its reputation as the birthplace of Jesus, but, on an unseasonably rain-swept morning, Manger Square became the scene of a different kind pilgrimage as runners in spandex and checkered Palestinian keffiyeh scarves embarked on the West Bank’s first ever marathon.

Even as last week’s fatal bombing at the Boston Marathon suddenly robbed the popular events of their innocence in the US, the spirit of the newest marathon seemed little dampened as runners warmed up to drum-driven Middle Eastern folk music. But as the worldwide trend of marathoning spreads to the Holy Land, the Bethlehem Marathon has inevitably been routed through the charged terrain of geopolitical and religious conflict.

Dubbed the "Right to Movement Palestine Marathon," event organizers cast the run as a demonstration against the Israeli security policies that limit Palestinian travel between their cities and towns.

From the start line outside of the Church of the Nativity (the site of a weeks-long standoff in 2002 between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military), the race led runners to the controversial concrete separation wall erected in the wake of the Palestinian uprising of the last decade, and then on past crowded neighborhoods populated by Palestinian refugees.  

"It sends a message of solidarity with the Palestinian people," says Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and the former head of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. "It sends a message to the Israelis to recharge their mental batteries and reconsider their policies and start recognizing facts on the ground. It shows the Palestinian people that they are not alone."

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