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Young Palestinian runners train hard for their right to movement

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Jihan Abdalla

(Read caption) Faris Abusada, a member of the Palestine Marathon Training group, runs through the al-Makhrour valley outside Bethlehem on Saturday, Feb. 1.

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It’s 6 a.m. on Saturday, and the sun has just started to rise over the olive groves of the al-Makhrour valley, near Bethlehem, where 30 young Palestinians are decked out in running shorts and bright sneakers.

After stretching and lining up their favorite tunes on smartphones, they pose for a group picture, line up, count down, and take off along the 6-mile dirt road nestled between rolling hills.

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This is the Palestine Marathon Training group, the first Palestinian running club, which was formed ahead of last year’s inaugural Right to Movement Palestine Marathon in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Inspired by the United Nations declaration that all people have the fundamental "right to movement," the marathon and weekly runs are meant to highlight – and overcome – the struggles of living under Israeli occupation.

Palestinians living in the West Bank are forbidden from entering Jerusalem or Israel without a permit, and in 2002 Israel erected a towering concrete barrier around the city, citing security concerns. Palestinians say it has had a devastating economic impact on the city and the wall has become a mental barrier as well.

Everywhere else in the world, “a running group is just a running group,” says training and marathon organizer George Zeidan, adding that last year’s marathon took runners on a four-loop course for the 26-mile race due to Israeli restrictions. “In Palestine, we run for the freedom of movement in general, and for my female friends who still cannot move freely.”

Dima Musallam reaches the finish line with a big smile and cheers from her friends. She has only been training for five months but has seen a drastic improvement since she began running with the group, which offers a refuge from Bethlehem’s jam-packed roads, full of impatient drivers prone to honking, especially at women.

“I was thinking about the race the whole time,” says Ms. Musallam, who plans to compete in the 10-km (6-mile) event on April 11. “I was thinking about my form and how I’m going to improve my time.”

Mr. Zeidan says they started with just four people, and now up to 70 people show up to any given practice. Their Facebook page has more than 500 members and includes group photos, updates, events, and practice times. Participants are mostly Palestinian, but internationals too, between the ages of 10 and 60.

Some simply take leisurely walks, while others race each other across the rocky, hilly road that leads to the terraced village of Battir.

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Al-Makhrour is located in so-called “Area C” of the West Bank, under full Israeli control. Residents are subject to building and farming restrictions, and over the years, many structures and homes, lacking elusive building permits, have been demolished. Rights groups say al-Makhrour, located near the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, is under threat of annexation by Israel.

Jessica Saba, a first-timer, was drawn to the training group for the opportunity to exercise not only her legs but Palestinian rights.

“It’s powerful,” Ms. Saba says. “The fact that it’s our land, and we’re running on it.”