Hundreds of athletes on Sunday braved freezing rain to take part in Bethlehem's first-ever marathon which was won by a Palestinian runner from the West Bank oasis town of Jericho.
Some 500 runners, half Palestinians and half foreigners, took part in the different legs of the race, organizers said, which began at 8 am as the West Bank town was buffeted by cold winds and an unseasonal downpour.
The marathon began near the Church of the Nativity with 218 runners from the United States, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Finland and other countries. The rest were residents of the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries.
The full marathon was won by Abdel Nasser Awajme, a Palestinian from Jericho.
Around 100 competitors took part in the full 42.2-kilometer race (26 miles), while another 150 joined the half marathon, organizers told AFP. Some 250 joined either the 10-kilometer (six mile) or five-kilometer (three mile) races.
Another 26 runners from Gaza were denied permission by Israel
to travel to Bethlehem to join the race.
Sunday's race, which is called the "Right to Movement Palestine Marathon" and is the brainchild of two Danish women athletes, takes runners on a 13-kilometer tour of this hilly southern West Bank town which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus.
The two women, Signe Fischer and Laerke Hein, were looking for a way to strengthen the cultural cooperation between Denmark and the Palestinian Authority. They joined forces with a group of Palestinian sports activists and got the PA's support.
“We do it to show that the Palestinians love their land and have a lot to offer, and are perfectly capable of hosting an international marathon”, said Fischer. The marathon's initiators stressed that it was not a political event but a project aimed at promoting tourism and public health.
Marathon runners had to do two laps of the course after organizers were not able to find an uninterrupted 42-kilometer stretch within Area A, the small portion of the West Bank which is under full Palestinian control.
Etidal Abdelghani, deputy director general of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, which co-sponsored the event, said the aim of the race – the first West Bank marathon to conform to international standards – was to demonstrate just that.
"This is a message that we have the right to move and to have sports events in Palestine without any obstacles," she said.
Women and men allowed to run together (Photo: EPA)
Among the international participants was Komar Nawaz, a 34-year-old woman from London, who ran the 10-kilometer race.
"We were supposed to do the Gaza one and then it got cancelled, but we were already training so we looked for something else and this one was perfect," she told AFP.
The UN's annual Gaza marathon, set for April 10, was cancelled
at the last minute after the Islamist Hamas
authorities who govern the enclave said they would not let women and men run together.
"We do a lot of work for Palestine back in the UK and we have got different trips to places across the West Bank this week," added Nawaz.
Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun stressed the importance of the marathon to convey a message of peace from the city. She noted that the municipality had prepared for the event and provided organizers with all the assistance needed for its success.
The marathon comes six days after the Boston Marathon bombings and coincides with the London Marathon.
Some runners wore T-shirts honoring the Boston Marathon victims.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
You can contact Elior Levy, Ynet's Palestinian Affairs Correspondent, at: firstname.lastname@example.org