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First West Bank marathon highlights barriers to Palestinian movement

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That said, the message of the Bethlehem marathon went beyond Israeli-Palestinan conflict to touch on the Palestinians’ own internal divisions. Several weeks ago, the United Nations organizers of the Gaza Strip marathon called off what would have been the third annual race there because the Hamas government banned women from participating – giving the Bethlehem event added significance.

Mixed-gender race

While Palestinian officials preferred to focus criticism on Israel and the military’s refusal to allow Gazan runners to travel to the West Bank for the Bethlehem race, female runners and spectators acknowledged the friction between the Western tradition of mass amateur races and the social sensibilities of conservative Islam.

"There’s no difference between men and women except for the shape of their bodies," says Kharoom Said, a 22-year-old religiously observant runner who insisted that her hijab head covering would not bother her and called Hamas’ decision "stupid." "It reflects how conservative and extreme they are. They are trying to suppress women and bring society backward."

Even though they had little praise of Hamas, residents of one refugee camp alongside the race route seemed to concur with the idea that a mixed-gender athletic event and tight-fitted athletic clothes flouted traditional religious mores.    

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