Jerusalem Marathon: The race that breaks international law

Every year runners come from around the world to take part in the event, many of them probably unaware that they're running across stolen land

In 2012, a British woman called Poppy Hardee took part in the second Jerusalem International Marathon. She arrived at the event with a Palestinian shirt and flag. In doing this, she hoped to raise awareness for the Palestinian cause, and show solidarity with her Palestinian friends who were barred from Jerusalem for the event. Her only other aim was to finish the marathon. But it was later reported that during her run Israeli soldiers physically assaulted her, forcefully confiscated her flag, and spat on it.

Four years later, and the Jerusalem Marathon has taken place again. In the morning the usually car packed roads of the city were empty. The streets had been closed, leaving only pedestrians. This year more than 30,000 participants took part. Wanting to encourage more global participation Nir Barakat, the Mayor of Jerusalem, wrote on the marathon website: “I would like to invite you – all runners, amateurs and professionals alike, alone, in groups or families, students and soldiers, of all religions and ethnic backgrounds, to come and take part in the 2016 marathon." 

However, not everyone was as welcomed as this message lets on. Prior to the event some Palestinian activists were banned from entering the Jerusalem area. Some were also arrested for standing on the side of the road wearing T-shirts stating that the marathon was being held in occupied Palestinian territory.

This fact – the fact of the occupation – was conveniently absent from the marathon’s official website. Instead it portrays itself as a spectacularly beautiful run, boasting a scenic track where runners would “pass by fascinating historical sites that illuminate 3,000 years of the history of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital.”

The website fails to mention that all of Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital. In 1967 Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. It annexed East Jerusalem and declared all of Jerusalem its eternal capital. A year later the UN Security Council passed a resolution stating that “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, including expropriation of land and properties thereon, which tend to change the legal status of Jerusalem, are invalid and cannot change that status”. Since then, the UN Security Council has passed numerous resolutions reaffirming the invalidity and illegality of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Marathon weaves its way across city in a total disregard of international law. It goes through the Old City, East Talpiot and Mount Scopus, all of which are neighbourhoods in Occupied East Jerusalem. Undoubtedly many international runners would have been unaware that they were running on internationally recognised stolen Palestinian land.

Most international runners are also probably unaware of the situation of the Palestinian residents on this land. Since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 over 2,000 Palestinian homes in the section of the city alone have been demolished, and 35 per cent of Palestinian land has been confiscated for illegal Israeli settlement use.

What's more, tens of thousands of Palestinians with East Jerusalem identifications have been separated from the city by the Separation Wall and are forced to go through arduous checkpoints to reach their places of work, medical services and family homes. East Jerusalem neighbourhoods lack sufficient municipal funds and most schools and hospitals are under resourced and under staffed

Running through West Jerusalem’s clean streets and purposely sanitised areas of East Jerusalem would not allow you to see the systematic separation of spheres of life in Israel and Palestine. It's a separation that has been likened to apartheid South Africa by many academics and human rights workers (including Desmond Tutu). Richard Falk, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories from 2008-2014, said that Israeli policies bore “unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing”.

Just down the road from Jerusalem is Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and a city currently sliced up by Israel’s separation wall. This is where the Palestine Marathon takes place, and this year will be its fourth iteration. The marathon is jointly organised by the Palestine Olympic Committee and the Right to Movement campaign. Last year there were 3,000 participants, this year they are expecting at least 4,000. The marathon course in Bethlehem is only 21km, half of a full marathon, so those running the full race have to do two laps. The reason for this is deliberate. Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by the separation wall meaning there is little space to move.

Beginning and ending at the Church of Nativity, the course takes runners through two refugee camps, Aida and Dheisheh, and along the Separation Wall. This is a course that sums up Palestinian everyday experience in a mere 21km. These Bethlehem refugee camps host Palestinians who were uprooted from their homes in the 1948 Nakba, which is Arabic for "catastrophe". Densely populated and poorly equipped, these decades old camps still rely on the UN Reliefs Works Agency to provide basic services. The Separation Wall runs for more than 712km and has been declared by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a violation of international law. It cuts Palestinians off from their land, separates them from family members and encloses them in an open-air prison. 

The two marathons, separated only by two weeks, stand in total contrast to one another. While one disregards international law, the other raises awareness and solidifies international solidarity with the Palestinian people. There isn’t anywhere else in the world where the act of running is so political but, if the last 50 years have taught us anything, it's that even the simplest things in Palestine can’t outrun the occupation.

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