Training in a war zone: Gaza's running man

When the athlete Nader al-Masri was allowed to leave Gaza yesterday, it marked the first step in a journey he hopes will end in Olympic glory. But others are not so lucky. By Donald Macintyre

A misfired Qassam rocket recently hit his house. His Adidas running shoes are badly torn round the instep from over-use.

He has been training on dusty, cratered dirt roads having been banned for the last four months from using a Qatari visa to train on purpose-built running tracks. And when a lethal clan dispute put his home town of Beit Hanoun under curfew, he was reduced to running endlessly up and down the narrow 200-metre alley next to his home.

So when Nader al-Masri, the fastest distance runner in Gaza, was finally allowed yesterday by Israel to leave for the West Bank, it put him on the path to realising his 10-year-old dream of competing in the 5,000 metres at the Beijing Olympics. "I'm so happy," he said after leaving through the Erez crossing. "This feels even better than when I heard I was in the Palestinian team for Beijing."

He has not stopped running during all but the worst of the fighting, both between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants (Beit Hanoun is often used for launching rockets into the Israeli border town of Sderot and has seen heavy Israeli military incursions in the past four years), and between Fatah and Hamas, which reached a climax with the latter's bloody seizure of control in the Strip in June last year.

Since then, the Israeli-imposed closure had meant that only those with special permits – including a select group of businessmen and some seriously ill patients bound for hospitals in Israel – have been allowed to leave. And until yesterday that excluded Mr Masri, an internationally experienced athlete who came eighth in the 5,000 metres at the Asian Games in 2006. That is why, having secured the Qatari visa back in January, he is now impatient to spend a few weeks training in the Gulf at last.

"They have all the capabilities," he says. "Sports fields, psychological relaxation, good food – and it is open to the world. And they have good relations with the Palestinians."

Mr Masri first started competing seriously in 1998, and has an ample cluster of cups and medals – gathered in his home under a brightly coloured scale model of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock – to attest to his success since then. He has twice won the Gaza half-marathon, a 21km course that runs along the Mediterranean coast from the central Gaza town of Deir-el-Bala to Gaza City, as well as another in Jordan.

One of the most difficult periods in his career came when a lethal feud erupted in Beit Hanoun between members of his own al-Masri clan and that of the Kafarna family. It started in November 2005 when a donkey cart owned by member of the al-Masri family bumped into – and scratched – an SUV owned by a member of the Kafarna family. By the time it ended in January 2006 nine members of the two families were dead. "With the Israeli forces, you know where they are and you just run in a different direction," he explained this week. "But something like this, you never know when someone may shoot."

Mr Masri's personal best time for the 5,000 metres is 14 minutes 24 seconds, outside the Olympic qualifying time. But the IOC awards 90 places for athletes who have not qualified but come from territories that would not otherwise compete. Mr Masri is sure anyway that with enough preparation he will be able to break through the 13-minute barrier to put himself in the top class of 5,000-metre runners.

The Qatar athletics authorities have presented Mr Masri, who is 28 and married with three children, with a pair of blue authorised Olympic spiked running shoes. "But they would be ruined in a moment if I had worn them in Gaza," he explains. Instead, he has relied on a pair of worn trainers with holes on the side to do up to five hours of running on the sandy surface of the dilapidated and unfinished Yarmouk stadium in Gaza City, as well as through the war-damaged roads and open spaces of northern Gaza.

Mr Masri saved just enough – despite steeply rising prices for many everyday goods in Gaza-– from his £260 Ramallah-paid salary as an officer in the Fatah-dominated National Security Force to buy new shoes. But, as shoes are the latest acute scarcity in Gaza (along with petrol and diesel) he couldn't find any. Surveying the yards of empty shelving where his stock should be, Ibrahim Dia Zeda, owner of one of Gaza City's largest shoe shops, said: "We used to have all the brands: Nike, Puma Reeebok, Adidas. Now we have nothing."

Mr Masri, at least, will now be able to buy new trainers in Qatar. But he remains wholly exceptional in being able to escape from what he himself, like almost every Gazan, calls the "big prison". For thousands of other Palestinians with all the travel papers they need except an exit permit from Israel, there is little hope of temporary escape. Three years ago, 20,000 Palestinians a month were passing through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. Now Rafah is closed and Erez is mainly reserved for cases of dire humanitarian need.

Wissam Abu Ajwa, 30, who has a British visa and a scholarship covering all the costs of doing an MA in environmental studies at Nottingham University, missed the last academic year and now fears he will miss the next one this September. Mr Abu Ajwa – who works part-time for environmental non-government organisations in Gaza and has helped to devise a project for harnessing solar energy to provide night-lights for fishermen, wants to return to Gaza more expert in solving the Strip's dire environmental problems, including one of the most polluted water supplies in the Middle East.

"Everybody is happy here for you when you get a place at a British university," he says. "Many people can't do that. Yet I have one and I can't go." Mr Abu Ajwa said British diplomats had been unable to persuade Israel to allow him out, and added that the Nottingham department was one of the best in the world. He said: "We are not Hamas, we are not part of the Palestinian Authority. We are just students."

Wafa Aloul, 28, also has a valid British entry visa to take her three young children and join her husband, who works as a chef in London. But because she got it after Israel imposed the closure in the wake of Hamas's takeover, she hasn't been able to use it. She explained that she was advised to apply separately for a dependant's visa rather than at the same time as her husband in case the family were refused as potential migrants.

Crying as she tells of how her husband has never seen their six-month-old daughter, she added that her five-year-old son, Khaled, asks every day when he is going to see his father. "I have lost hope of leaving Gaza," she says. "Life is getting worse here. My husband calls me every day, asking me not to lose hope. He has got a house, he has work, and he waits for us. Only God knows when I can leave Gaza."

Israel sees its closure policy as an attempt to put pressure on Hamas, and its cabinet decision on 19 September specifically linked restrictions on movement and goods in Gaza with other measures designed to curb the rocket attacks on Israel.

Gisha, the Israeli human rights agency, which has been pestering the Israeli military on Mr Masri's behalf since January, accepts Israel's right to deal militarily with rocket attacks and those like Wednesday's shooting of two Israeli civilians in a cross-border raid by Palestinian militants. But it argues that the blanket restrictions on movement are a form of "collective punishment" that violates international law.

Captain Shadi Yassin, spokesman for the military's civil administration for Gaza, said Mr Masri did not get his permit earlier because the authorities were unaware that the application related to the Olympics. But Sari Bashi, Gisha's director, pointed out its letter to the military on 15 January seeking to allow "one of the finest athletes in the Palestinian Authority" to compete abroad, which explicitly said he was under consideration as a member of the Palestinian Olympic team. The official response in February said that "currently, exit from the Gaza Strip is only possible in exceptional humanitarian cases and for urgent medical treatment".

Whether or not, as Gisha believes, Mr Masri was allowed out mainly because of locally generated publicity about his case, its argument is that the general restrictions are impossible to justify. "Gaza needs contact with the outside world," says Ms Bashi. "Ten months of closure, trapping 1.5 million in a tiny, under-serviced strip of land, creates unbearable pressure and blocks access to education, work, medical care, family members and normal life. You shouldn't have to be an Olympic athlete to exercise your right to leave Gaza."

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