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Giro d'Italia: Anger grows over plans to start top bike race in Jerusalem

Organisers condemned for 'whitewashing occupation' even as Israeli government threatens to pull support over reference to 'West Jerusalem'
Colombia's Nairo Quintana, wearing the race leader's pink jersey, competes in the 2017 Giro d'Italia (AFP)

Controversial plans to stage the opening leg of one of the world’s most prestigious bicycle races on the streets of Jerusalem are drawing criticism from both Palestinian rights groups and Israeli government ministers.

Palestinian rights groups have accused organisers of the Giro d’italia of “whitewashing Israel’s military occupation [of East Jerusalem and the West Bank] and grave human rights violations”, over their decision to hold the opening three stages of the May 2018 race in Israel.

The Giro is one of cycling’s three grand tours, along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta de Espana, and often starts outside Italian borders. Taking the race to Israel marks the first time it has ventured beyond Europe.

But Israeli government ministers threatened to withdraw support for the race after organisers RCS Sport said in marketing material released on Wednesday that the opening stage, an individual time trial, would take place in West Jerusalem and unveiled a route that remains inside Israel’s internationally recognised 1967 borders.

The race route unveiled on Wednesday stays inside Israel's internationally recognised borders (RCS Sport)
Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, but the occupation is considered illegal by the United Nations and the international community. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

In a statement, Israeli sports minister Miri Regev and tourism minister Yariv Levin said that the government would not support the race unless the wording was changed and said the use of the term “West Jerusalem” breached agreements reached with organisers.

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“In Jerusalem, Israel's capital, there is no east or west. There is one unified Jerusalem,” they said. “If the wording does not change, the Israeli government will not be a partner in the event.”

A Palestinian coalition of rights groups last week wrote to RCS Sport and others, including Pope Francis, to call for plans to stage the race in Israel to be dropped, warning that holding the Giro would serve to “cover up Israel’s military occupation and discrimination against Palestinians and increase Israel’s sense of impunity”.

An official video for the race produced by the Israeli tourism ministry and promoted on the Giro d'Italia's YouTube channel on 18 September features footage of Jerusalem's Old City, which is part of East Jerusalem.

“In official race imagery, maps and videos, Giro d’Italia is deceptively portraying East Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli military occupation for 50 years, as if it were part of Israel and the unified capital of the State of Israel,” a statement by the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine (ECCP) said.

As well as the opening time trial in Jerusalem, Israel will host stages between Haifa and Tel Aviv and from Beer Sheva across the Negev desert to the Red Sea port of Eilat.

“The final stage planned for southern Israel will pass by dozens of Palestinian Bedouin villages Israel refuses to recognise or provide with the most basic of services, including electricity, water, clinics, schools and roads, one of which Israel has demolished over 100 times,” the statement also said.

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Responding to that statement, RCS Sport said: “The first reason why the Giro d’Italia is starting in Israel is to continue the process of internationalisation of the race, remembering that this is the 14th time the race will start abroad. Israel represents a good opportunity because it will be the first time a Grand Tour will start outside the borders of Europe.

“Linked to that, the second reason is that the Giro d’Italia is a vehicle to export everything that is Italian to the world, and of course being in Israel gives us great international exposure to talk about Italy.”

Next year's Giro, famed for the pink jersey worn by the race leader, is likely to garner extra attention following the announcement that Tour de France and Vuelta de Espana winner Chris Froome will race in an attempt to become the third cyclist in history to hold all three Grand Tour titles simultaneously.

The race may also throw up the odd spectacle of teams sponsored by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain racing through Israel, a country that is not officially recognised by either Arab state.

UAE Team Emirates, pictured during October's Tour of Turkey (Twitter)
Israeli and Palestinian rights groups have accused Israeli authorities of “ethnic cleansing” over legal changes and settlement expansion projects which could force tens of thousands of Palestinians out of a city where their families have lived and worked for generations.

Two parliamentary bills backed by the the government would see Israel annex 150,000 Jews living in illegal West Bank settlements surrounding the city. Another bill would deny rights to Palestinians living inside the security barrier running through Palestinian neighbourhoods that separates East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

Meanwhile, a web of harsh Israeli policies, including late-night arrests, land shortages, home demolitions and a denial of basic services, are intensifying the pressure on Palestinians inside the wall to move out.

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