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Palestinians run for right to free movement in Bethlehem marathon

South African runner Mervin Steenkamp wins for second year running
The marathon had participants run through two refugee camps and along the separation Wall with Israel (Alaa Daraghme)

Bethlehem - Restricted in their right to movement in their daily life, thousands of Palestinian runners participated in Friday's Bethlehem Marathon, with many running to demand greater freedom.

Around 6,000 runners took part in this year's multi-race event in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem, Palestinians as well many runners from across the globe.

The run began at the Church of the Nativity and seemed to symbolise the growing international condemnation of increasing restrictions placed on Palestinian people by an Israeli government more and more people are referring to as an "apartheid" regime.

Rather poetically, in a development saturated with political and emotional charge, South African runner Mervin Steenkamp came in first, for the second year in a row.

Second-placed Thaer Shanaah is from Gaza, the densely populated coastal strip under blockade by Israel.  

In third place was US citizen Taylor Broadwell.  

Mervin Steenkamp, from South Africa, won for the second year in a row (Alaa Daraghmeh)

Together as families, or as individuals, the race drew together young and old runners, teachers and students, business managers and workers, who flocked to Bethlehem first thing in the morning to take part in the 42 kilometre race.

Many local runners saw it as an expression of their need for free movement in a country divided and under occupation and siege.

"We are joining the marathon today to demand that children are not held in Israeli jails and have their freedom," said Majdoleen Natour, a Master's student at Bethlehem University.

Foreign runners and activists came from all over the world to express their support for the Palestinian people, especially in their struggle for the right to free movement.

"This is my second time running the 10 kilometre race here, and I decided to join today because I want to be part of a positive story, and the marathon is a good story about power and positivity,” Stephanie, a Danish participant, told MEE.

'We must continue what we are doing and fight for freedom'

-       Mervin Steenkamp, South African marathon winner

"It's just an amazing day and it's a day for everyone to forget about everything and to be happy. It's just great fun and the weather is really nice," she said.  

Liam, an Irish runner, told MEE: "We support Palestine where I’m from, Ireland, and in London, and we hope things will get better for Palestine in the future." 

First placed Mervin Steenkamp, who ran the marathon in two hours and 51 minutes, said it was an honour to run for Palestine.

"We run to free Palestine," he said. "I'm from Cape Town in South Africa, and it's an honour to run for Palestine."

Around 6,000 people took part in the marathon, young and old alike (Alaa Daraghmeh)

"It's very emotional to run against the wall and we must continue what we are doing and fight for freedom, and we hope freedom will come in the next year," he said.

"My message is that to run for Palestine is an honour. We are running today to raise funds to help build a hospital in Gaza," Steenkamp said. Last year he ran to help raise funds for a new hospital in Bethlehem.  

The event included a three-kilometre "family" race, a 10km run, a half marathon, at 21km, and the full marathon, coming in at just over 42km.  

Jibrin al-Bakri, the governor of Bethlehem, spoke at the marathon's finish line in Manger Square in the centre of the city.

National message

"The most important message of this marathon is a national one, and one that stresses the Palestinian reality of restricted movement, land theft and the construction of a separation wall which are all racist actions that violate human rights.

"The marathon sends athletic, humanitarian and social messages as it opens up a space for sports, and helps to highlight different social issues, including the rights of people with disabilities," he said.

Around 500 participants in Friday's event were disabled.

The Right to Free Movement group, which had organized the event, said in a statement: "We are extremely proud of what we have achieved. From the 700-runner inaugural race in 2013, to this year’s nearly 5,000 runners from 63 countries."

"We wanted to shed light on violations of the basic human rights of freedom of movement of Palestinian people caused by the occupation," the statement said.

"We created an internationally recognized running course, in spite of restraints on movement and by designing a two-loop course through Bethlehem," the group added.

On Thursday, the Palestinian marathon committee banned British comedian Eddie Izzard from taking part in the race for his refusal to pull out of a gig in Tel Aviv. 

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