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Marathon in the Shadow of the Wall

Running for Freedom in Bethlehem

by HEIDI MORRISON

Palestine held its second annual marathon last week in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. There was not one loser in the bunch of roughly 3,000 local and international participants. Personal goals were achieved, categories of prizes awarded, and records broken. The greatest win, however, was a group effort – a win not against oneself, one another, or even a clock, but against occupation. There was no stopwatch to record this win or finishing line to mark it or trophy to honor it. The evidence of the win was simply that it happened.

Movement is difficult for Palestinians living in the West Bank, a sliver of historic Palestine containing nearly three million Palestinians. Palestinians have civil and military control over only 5% of the West Bank, called Area A. However, entry and exit to Area A is monitored by Israel, which often breaches international law by conducting illegal raids to arrest alleged militants. Area B, under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, makes up about 25% and is increasingly being populated by illegal Israeli settlements. Area C, under full Israeli civil and security control, makes up about 75% of the West Bank and includes most of Palestine’s natural resources, which Palestinians cannot access.

Israeli settlements continue to be built in Area C, even though according to Oslo II, Israel was supposed to gradually transfer Area C back to Palestinian jurisdiction.  (The Gaza Strip is an isolated self-governed entity, which has not successfully merged politically with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Within the West Bank there is a divisive network of Israeli checkpoints, bypass roads, permits, roadblocks and settlements, along with the Separation Barrier. This network of closure mechanisms hinders movement of Palestinians in the West Bank by confining them to pockets. Isolated Palestinian enclaves facilitate Israeli occupation of the West Bank because it allows for the decentralization of common Palestinian spaces, control of Palestinian economic life, and the monitoring of civilians. Essentially, it is a way for Israel to practice ‘remote control’ of the land, resources and people without officially and fully subsuming the West Bank into the state of Israel.

The Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement have concrete consequences on daily life. Some Palestinian families live just kilometers apart but cannot visit one another without driving five times the distance. Students arrive late or stressed to schools and universities after delays and interrogations. Palestinian farmers need permission to enter their own olive groves during harvest season. Critically ill Palestinians cannot readily access the closest medical facility.

The Palestinian marathon was a symbolic step towards breaking the control over movement. While Israel did not allow participants out of their usual West Bank confines, and managed to deny entry to approximately 30 Gazan participants (including an Olympian), the important matter is that participants moved. And did so in the thousands. Some ran 10 kilometers, others the half marathon, and some even ran the full 42-kilometer race.

The marathon was organized around a motto: we run to tell a different story. Part of that story is that walls and checkpoints will not stop Palestinians from moving.  Liberation can come internally when a person goes against what the panopticon tries to stop them from doing.

The race started at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, passed the Separation Barrier with looming Israeli watchtowers, and entered the two refugee camps of Aida and Dheisheh. A mother and father ran together pushing a baby stroller. A physically disabled person participated in a wheelchair. A woman from South Africa celebrated her 60th birthday by crossing the finish line. Child spectators ran alongside the runners, giving out high fives.

The sight of all these people running alongside the 8-meter high concrete separation barrier was powerful. Movement, for a moment, took the foreground to a landscape of paralysis.

Heidi Morrison is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.