BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — Hundreds of people on Sunday took part in the West Bank’s first marathon, looping around the biblical city of Bethlehem four times on a course that was limited by the confines of Israel’s sprawling separation barrier.
The race was meant as a political statement as much as a sporting event.
One participant wore a T-shirt honoring the victims killed in last week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, while other runners waved slogans in support of Palestinians. The area was decorated with green, white and red balloons symbolizing the Palestinian flag.
Runners jogged near the stone-clad Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born, past a charred Israeli military watchtower where Palestinian youths often hurl flaming bottles during protests and alongside the concrete barrier. The 8-meter (26-foot) high barrier, partly scrawled with graffiti demanding freedom, hems in Bethlehem.
“This is illegally occupied land,” one slogan read. “The wall must fall,” read another.
Israel built the barrier a decade ago in response to a wave of suicide bombings carried out by West Bank Palestinians. Israel says the barrier keeps out militants, who killed hundreds of Israelis. Palestinians see its route as a land grab because it frequently dips into the West Bank, swallowing their lands.
About 1,000 people participated in the race, which included shorter 10-kilometer (six-mile) and 20-kilometer (12-mile) options. Around a quarter of participants undertook the full 42-kilometer (26.2 miles) run, said Itidal Abdul-Ghani of the Palestinian Olympic Committee.
“C’mon guys, you gotta go a lot faster than that!” yelled a voice from the crowd in English as the pack began jogging.
The fastest runner, Abdul-Nasser Jawani of the West Bank town of Jericho came in at 3 hours, 9 minutes, 47 seconds. The fastest woman was a Palestinian from Bethlehem who came in at 3 hours, 36 minutes, 37 seconds. Abdul-Ghani did not have her full name.
The Palestinians seek an independent state in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Palestinians and their international supporters have turned toward sports in recent years to draw attention to their struggle for statehood, although that has sometimes backfired.
In March, the United Nations had to cancel a Gaza marathon because the territory’s conservative Islamic rulers wouldn’t let women participate, claiming it was immodest.
The mood was far more relaxed in relatively liberal Bethlehem during Sunday’s “Right to Movement Palestinian Marathon,” held in cool, rainy weather.
Most of the women jogged in loose shirts and tights, although some wore Muslim headscarves. Most men wore shorts and sweatshirts. Loud Arabic music blasted in the background.
The participants jogged four times around Bethlehem because there wasn’t enough space to do a straight marathon due to the barrier, Abdul-Ghani said. Israel also has full control over nearby areas, making it complicated for Palestinians to run there.
Underscoring hostilities, Abdul-Ghani said Israelis weren’t welcome to join the marathon while their military occupies Palestinian lands. Israeli officials would not allow some two dozen Gaza hopefuls to cross through the Jewish state to reach the West Bank to attend the marathon.
The marathon came six days after the Boston Marathon bombings. The Sunday run also coincided with the London Marathon.
Participant Demitri Awwad, a Palestinian-American from Fenton, Mich., wore a T-shirt honoring the Boston Marathon victims under his official marathon shirt as he ran in the 10-kilometer race. It had a picture of 8-year-old Martin Richard, with the words “No more hurting people” emblazoned below.
“‘No more hurting people’ — it’s a very simple thing from a kid and it’s what we all should live by,” said the 33-year-old.
Other runners touted other causes: One group ran with a banner demanding the freedom of a Palestinian prisoner Samer Issawi, who has been refusing food since August. Two Palestinian men smoking cigarettes looked on as they ran by.
Israelis said they also planned to hold five-kilometer (30nuke) evening runs in the cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheva in solidarity with the Boston Marathon victims.
Organizer Ilia Rabinovich said the gesture was to show Americans that it was important to “continue running.”
The 26-year-old marathon enthusiast estimated some 300 people had signed up for the runs.
“We feel a lot of compassion to these innocent people who are victims of terrorist attacks,” he said.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed to this report.