The annual marathon race run through Gaza has been cancelled by the UN agency responsible for staging the event after Hamas said women would not be allowed to take part.
The third staging of the race, due to be run on 10 April, was cancelled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) after Hamas, which controls the Palestinian coastal territory, said that having female runners would contravene Islamic tradition. The Islamist group said that it would be happy for the event to go ahead, but only if “local traditions” were observed.
“We regret this decision to cancel the marathon but we don't want men and women running together,” Abdessalam Siyyam, cabinet secretary of the Hamas government, told the AFP news agency.
“We did not tell UNRWA to cancel the marathon and we haven’t prevented it, but we laid down some conditions: We don’t want women and men mixing in the same place,” he said.
UNRWA, which has at times had a tricky relationship with the Hamas administration, said that school children would be the ultimate victims of the decision: “The marathon was an annual event to show solidarity with the Palestinian people and to raise funds for summer camps organised by UNRWA which serve at least 250,000 schoolchildren,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, the agency's spokesman in Gaza.
As many as 1,500 children, who run a few hundred yards of the main course, were due to start the race. According to UNRWA a record number of women – 379 – had entered this year’s race, including 260 Palestinians. As many as 800 people were registered to run this year’s 26.2 mile race, which winds its way through Gaza and along the Mediterranean coastline.
The cancellation of the race will also deny Nader al-Masri, a Palestinian athlete, of a hat-trick of wins, after he headed the field last year and in 2011.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, when a brief, but bloody civil war with the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah, ended in Hamas’s favour. Since then, the group has had several rows with UNRWA, particularly in relation to what is taught as part of the curriculum in UNRWA sponsored schools. Several rights groups have criticised Hamas for placing restrictions on what women are allowed to do.
UNRWA is tasked with providing assistance to Gaza 1.6 million people, who live in one of the world’s most densely populated areas.