Runners From Palestine Journey to Beirut to Exercise Their Freedom to Move

Republication of this story is welcome and encouraged.
Details are here.

BEIRUT, LEBANON – Seasoned marathon runners often talk about hitting “the wall”, that latter stage of a race when mental and physical barriers move from being difficult to really, really difficult.

Organizers and participants of the now annual Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem have additional walls, very real ones, to consider before they even take their first step. One, the Separation Barrier that divides the West Bank city, is among the reasons that 3,200 runners participated in the race last April to claim, for at least a few hours, their freedom to move.

Moved by the Right to Movement“We don’t even control a 42.2 kilometer stretch of road in the West Bank,” said Diala Isid, an organizer of the race. “So runners need to pass the same route four times in order to finish the full marathon. Because that’s the only road that we are in control over, and the only road that we can close because of the Israeli occupation.”

Isid, an architect from Ramallah, was among a dozen runners from Palestine who came to race in last weekend’s Banque du Liban Beirut Marathon and to raise awareness of Right to Movement, a nonprofit organization that uses running to focus attention on what it sees as one of the most basic of human rights: the right to move.

Article 13 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement”. But, organizers say, not everyone  has that option.

Palestinians, Isid said, “are deprived of that right.”

The constraints are indeed numerous.

According to B’Teselem, an Israeli human rights organization, there were 96 fixed checkpoints in the West Bank in April along with 361 temporary “flying” checkpoints. Additionally, between 300 and 500 other physical obstructions –dirt embankments, concrete blocks, trenches and iron gates– have been counted monthly since the beginning of 2010. There are also roads forbidden to Palestinians, as well as the looming Separation Barrier, the 26-foot-high wall which surrounds the city on three sides.

Even the group’s journey to the Lebanese capital, which covered a distance of just 140 kilometers, took 14 hours and required transport on seven buses, one mini van and an airplane, illustrated just how difficult movement can be for Palestinians in their part of the world.

“If I ran from Jerusalem to here, I would have been faster,” said George Zeidan, a financial officer from East Jerusalem and a co-founder of the race. “Maybe by just minutes, but I would have been faster.”

Founded in April 2013 as a conceptual by-product of that year’s inaugural Palestine Marathon, Right to Movement has since grown to include more than one thousand members from 13 communities in nine countries.

“We run for those and with those who are deprived of that right,” Asid said during a presentation at a runners’ forum, Run4Good, at Beirut Arab University. “We run to tell stories. We run to build bridges instead of walls. And we run to inspire you to do the same.”

Diala Isid at the 2015 Movement for Good forum in Beirut
Diala Isid at the 2015 Movement for Good forum in Beirut

Seven hundred runners participated in the race’s first edition. In 2014 it attracted two thousand runners and grew to 3,200 from 49 countries this past April. It boasts a route that clearly fits the organization’s motto, “We run to tell a different story”.

Beginning at Nativity Square, it runs along the Separation Barrier –the “Apartheid Wall” to Palestinians– and by Israeli settlements. It also passes through two refugee camps before finishing at the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the world’s oldest existing church and birthplace of Christ.

“There are three watch towers along the course,” said Maha Khamis, a lawyer from Bethlehem. “We have a picture that we use that shows a soldier in the tower pointing his gun down as runners pass.”

Zeidan likens the scene to what one would expect to see on the fringes of a battlefield from the Middle Ages. Or in a video game.

“That’s the reality,” Khamis said.

Sharing that reality was one of the reasons the group made their journey to Beirut. Another was because they want to continue to improve and grow their own marathon.

“It’s the largest and best organized in the region,” Zeidan said. “Being here helps us to further professionalize our event. Organizing a top quality event is just as important to us as the freedom to move.”

For several members of the group, Beirut was their first attempt at the marathon distance, an experience, they said, that will allow them to use the challenges and barriers encountered in running and finishing a marathon to conquer those they face in their day-to-day lives.

“Our barriers in life are much harder than in the marathon,” said Victor Qawas, a hair stylist from Ramallah, with a wide smile. “The marathon is the fun part. But still, the barriers in the marathon will help you overcome the barriers in you have in real life.”

Victor Qawas in Beirut after his first marathon: “Our barriers in life are much harder than in the marathon”
Victor Qawas in Beirut after his first marathon: “Our barriers in life are much harder than in the marathon”

“I see the marathon kind of as a lesson for life,” said Abu Rmeileh, who like Qawas ran and finished her first 42.2 kilometer race. “You face hard times and hardships but you learn that you won’t give up, you keep going because you have a set goal that you want to reach. I think that’s a very good lesson for life – that even if you feel at times that you want to quit, there’s always hope.”

Tala Qaddoura, also from Ramallah, said, “The biggest challenge in the marathon and also in real life is to reach your full potential. You’re always challenged to go through your ups and your downs and hope you make it to the finish line successfully.”

“It’s different but it represents a reality in life,” said Zeidan. “You get tired, you get bored, you get fed up, but you’re going forward so you try your best. You give it all you’ve got.”

“The difference is that in the marathon you know you will get to the finish line successfully. You don’t know if it will be the same in life, especially in Palestine.”


Republication of this story is welcome and encouraged. Details are here.

A version of this story appeared on Medium. If you are a Medium user, please consider recommending and/or sharing the piece there, too.

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  1. ladieswholunchreviews says

    Very moving story. Nice of you to make it available to repost, helps us all!

  2. Kiri says

    Great to read something other than the usual polemics about Palestine. I did recommend on Medium too 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks so much Kiri, VERY much appreciated. Feel free to share, too. 🙂

      1. Kiri says

        Yeah shared it on facebook. Very subdued response though. I feel like people have very short attention spans when it comes to the Middle East. Much easier to just change your facebook profile to the French flag. To be fair I guess people have been bombarded over the last few days with a ton of opposing commentaries by people with all sorts of agendas.

  3. Jeffrey Zablow says

    Bob, this major departure from Art to a verbal quagmire, came as a surprise. Your and their repeated use of the “Palestine” name came unexpectedly. I have enjoyed your work recently, but did not know that underlying it was a certain political call to reward these very buff, very well dressed, very well educated and dressed folks, with the fruits of their dreams. That would be of course the slaughter of 7 million Jews, along with the elimination of the French, Belgium, UK and other Jews now packing, as the flee their ancestral European homes.
    You are an artist, but the slide to the dark side is a slippery once . . . .

    1. Bob R says

      Jeffrey: a “slide to the dark side”? I’m not going to read too much into what you’ve written here unless you’d like to elaborate because my guess is that we’ll get nowhere. But I will say that I’m surprised that you, as a life long educator, would somehow equate a group of passionate runners whom you’ve never met and know nothing about with those seeking to slaughter their fellow human beings.

      1. Jeffrey Zablow says

        Bob, this hit a tender spot. I have grandkids in Israel. If someone seeks that nation to disappear, and be replace by ‘Palestine’ there is no other result but the slaughter of the Jews in Israel. I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, NYC, and I bristle when folks propose to terminate (again) the dry bones of those who fled to there after defying the ovens, as well as my grandkids. I respect you, your work is extraordinary, but this instance is different, and those young folks, inevitably, propose doing us once again, and that raises my hackles. Hope you understand. My late wife’s entire families were shot, starved and ensalved. Her parents were both enslaved, dying a million deaths till liberation. This is very complicated stuff. I hope that this does not cut the line, so to speak, but I’ve shared my heat here. Thanks.

        1. Bob R says

          Jeffrey — I realize that it’s complicated stuff which is why I guess I can’t view it only in terms of black and white. My grandfather spent two and a half years in Dachau, and my great grandfather died there, worked to death. I’ve visited Auschwitz and have spoken with survivors, and don’t wish what they endured on anyone.

          I’ve also spoken with Palestinians who are routinely dehumanized in the Occupied Territories where they’re forced to live as second class citizens. Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and particularly in Gaza is well documented. The brutality with which Jews were treated in the past can’t be an excuse for Jews to treat others unjustly now.

          I’m not ignoring the suffering that Palestinians have inflicted on Israelis. Nor should you ignore what’s been inflicted on Palestinians.

          1. Jeffrey Zablow says

            Yes, the gravity of that land is complex. I was in Israel 3 years ago, and was at the ground breaking for a new home. The architect was family to me, as was her husband, the general contractor. I asked of the excavators who were there to begin prepping the land for the foundation. The architect had done upwards of 30 homes with these 2 brothers. I asked if their kids joined them in their company? No, she smiled, pointing to one of the brothers. One of his 2 sons is a doctor, the other a lawyer. I then asked if they were paid on par with a Jewish excavator. She said absolutely, and the brothers were very successful. The brothers live in Israel, and she said that their family homes are in a cup-de-sac in an arab village. She (the architect) visited his home on his invitation, and it was beyond nice. I finish this thread with you noting: If the Arabs would stop preaching Kill! they would rather soon enjoy peace and definitely prosperity. Tell me when that time will come, absent the elimination of the Jews of Israel? Thanks for civil sharing.

          2. Bob R says

            And thank you. You’ve given me some things to ponder, I hope I’ve done the same. I’m a firm believer that in the end we have much more in common than we care to admit.

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