In a rare move defined by Israeli authorities as a 'humanitarian gesture', officials decided to permit two members of the Palestinian Olympic team to cross the borders from Gaza and the West Bank in order to train in Jericho and Jerusalem, so that they can prepare themselves for the 2008 events in Beijing.
"Thank God," a relieved Nader Masri said on Monday. Since the Hamas took
over the Gaza Strip he has been trapped inside Gaza, unable to leave in order to train with his coach in the West Bank city of Jericho. "I was beginning to think my dream (of representing Palestine in the Olympics) would never come true."
The decision to allow Masri to cross the border followed months of refusal by authorities to do so, even when human rights groups pleaded his case before officials. But the authorities' attitudes changed following an article about the Olympic team published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, in which the runner's situation was presented.
On Monday Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the government, announced that Masri would be allowed to cross, though it was not easily done during these times.
When asked why the permit could not have been given sooner he replied, "The security situation has changed."
In Jericho Masri will train with senior Palestinian coach Yusuf Hamed, after which he is scheduled to fly to Qatar for more training. "Now Nader will finally be able to go to Beijing prepared, and not merely to wave the flag," Hamed commented.
The authorities have also arranged a permit for swimmer Zakiya Nassar, who has been unable to train as Jenin, her home city in the West Bank, has no pool. Her only request, to be able to enter Jerusalem freely in order to train in an Olympic pool, was also granted by Lerner, who said that she would receive a monthly permit with a possibility for extension.
A spokeswoman for the human rights group 'Gisha: Legal center for freedom of movement', Noga Eitan, commented upon the decision to allow the two athletes to cross the borders: "This could have been made possible months ago. It just shows the inexcusability of imprisoning and punishing over a million people."