Correction: A previous version of this story provided an inaccurate description of the West Bank barrier
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The finish line at the biggest race in the West Bank featured fresh-squeezed orange juice and piles of Jericho dates instead of Gatorade and Gu packets. Clusters of runners danced to techno versions of Justin Bieber and Adele songs along with traditional Arabic music, and finishers ate freshly fried falafel as they stretched out in the sun on the cobblestones of Manger Square. Friday’s winner, Mervin Steenkamp, guessed his final time after finishing — there was no official clock at the end — and was paraded through the crowd as he held up a peace sign for photographers instead of the one finger usually displayed by first-place finishers.
At the fourth annual Palestine Marathon, running, politics and community intersected, resulting in a mishmash of intention and intensity. Serious marathoners mingled with local kids in jeans and T-shirts while Europeans in spandex jogged past Palestinian women in long pants and bright headscarves. The race, which is put on by the non-profit global running community Right to Movement and dedicated to “telling a different story of Palestine,” represents a new mode of political statement in a region that “has become sick of the traditional ways,” said Ramez Qonqar, a 23-year-old aspiring sculptor whose 26.2-mile run through his home town of Bethlehem marked his second finished marathon. He ran his first in Northern Ireland.
“It connects everybody, and we can tell our story with running,” Qonqar said.
Five years ago, almost no one would train on the cobblestone alleys in Bethlehem or jog along the barrier that was built by Israel to keep Palestinians in the West Bank from illegally entering Israel. Most of the barrier runs inside the occupied West Bank. Some sections are high concrete walls and other sections are fences.
In Palestine, soccer comes first, Qonqar said, and any other sport a distant second. But in 2013, the creation of the Palestine Marathon transformed the region. Now everyone is running, he said, in hopes of competing in the national marathon for an often unrecognized state.
Participation in the race is a non-violent demonstration, and a way to show “we are here, and this is our land, and we have right to move,” said Ashraf Hamouda, 47.
“And this is a good way to show that because it is peaceful,” added his daughter, Noor, 14.
The inaugural race included fewer than 700 runners. This year, a record 4,371 participants donned green, red, black and white T-shirts and collected olive-wood trophies after completing the hilly, mostly urban course. A sizable number of foreign visitors and ex-pats participated, along with Palestinians from Bethlehem, Ramallah and other West Bank towns.
Last month, an additional 750 applicants from the Gaza Strip applied for permits to travel out of the narrow seaside land and through Israel to participate. When asked to pare down the number of Gaza participants, Right to Movement submitted about 100 names, but all of their permits were rejected by the Israeli government. In a post on its Facebook page, COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for activities in Palestinian territories, said that organizers for the marathon deliberately delayed the coordination process for Gaza attendees as an intentional act to place the blame on Israel for preventing participation in the race.
Runners like Inas Nofal, a 15-year-old from Maghazi Refugee Camp who trained for the 10-kilometer run, and Nader Al Masri, a former Olympian who won last year’s marathon, received 24 hours’ notice that they could not compete. Nofal was devastated. She cried and questioned what had she done to be rejected, her coach said. Nofal had aspired to become the first female from Gaza to medal in Bethlehem, but instead became an anecdote for the race’s message — a Palestinian who sought to move from point A to point B, but was limited because of policy in the region.
The race is a perfect illustration of the cause, said Stefan Wagler, a German runner who lives and works in Bethlehem. There is not enough Palestinian land to construct a continuous viable course without retreading territory, making this perhaps the only race in the world with a course that is a political statement in itself.
The marathon route looped through Bethlehem four times, downhill past pharmacies, hotels, a “Star and Bucks” coffee and shops selling wooden crosses and multicolored kerchiefs known as keffiyeh. At one point, runners were surrounded by abandoned houses on one side and the graffitied concrete of the separation barrier on the other.
The marathoners and half-marathoners were led through two refugee camps on the outskirts of the city, where sheep herders created roadblocks and local kids sprinted to keep up with Steenkamp as he separated himself from the pack.
Steenkamp, a South African, ran as part of Team Palestine, a group of 55 made up mostly of Americans who raised money for pediatric healthcare in the West Bank and Gaza. He finished in 2:35.36 in his first international marathon. Teams from northern Ireland, Save the Children, UN agencies, Denmark and France raced alongside locals, and the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities issued a statement in support of the race.
For hours after the start, modern running practices clashed with local tradition around the square, which is bordered by the Church of the Nativity and the Bethlehem Peace Center. Runners opted for kebabs grilled in stone ovens built into the limestone of buildings instead of post-race granola bars and bread, or clutched paper cups of steamed corn purchased from vendors with metal carts. The Friday call to prayer echoed out from the mosque opposite the finish line. The square swarmed with females dressed in everything from burkas to running shorts. Female participation jumped from 39 percent of the field last year to 45 percent this year, an unprecedented statistic given that women running in public is still uncommon in conservative communities.
The second-place female finisher in the half marathon, Fatima Aweisat, trained by walking two miles every day in east Jerusalem, briskly, and running when it was appropriate. She wore a white headscarf and slightly flared black running pants for the race, and even hours after finishing in 1:27.43, she was ecstatic.
Thirteen members of the Aweisat family came to compete in the 10k and half-marathon distances. Aweisat sister walked the 10 kilometers in a floor-length, thick black skirt, and grinned while pulling back the fabric to reveal athletic pants and bright running shoes underneath. When the sisters were younger, running in public would have never been acceptable. Nowadays, people are more open, Aweisat said. This race is helping.
“It was tiring,” she said, surrounded by her family, which had ducked inside the Peace Center by the start to find shade as the temperature climbed into the upper 70s. “And exciting, and amazing.”
Correction: A previous version of this story provided an inaccurate description of the West Bank barrier.