The fifth annual Palestine Marathon kicked off on Friday in the West Bank city of Bethlehem—with 6,000 runners participating this year’s marathon was the largest ever in the city. The marathon, which takes place every year to publicize Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement, saw runners from at least 65 different countries, according to Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun.
Participation in 2017 grew by 1,000 runners from the previous year, and Baboun boasted that the marathon hosted a diverse crowd—50 percent of participants were women, and 500 were disabled marathoners.
Roads closed down for the marathon across the city. Because Area A in Bethlehem — the only part of the district under Palestinian control — is so small, runners had to make two laps through the city and loop through a refugee camp in order to fit the marathon route inside the city. This confined reality for Palestinians is a central focus of the marathon’s message to the world.
This year’s race was organized by the Palestine Olympic Committee, but it was first organized by the Right to Movement in 2013 with 700 participants. The founding group released a statement that celebrated the turnout.
“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.”
Not all those who wished to participate were allowed. Thirty-six of 50 runners from the Gaza Strip were barred from leaving the enclave to participate in the marathon. Both the Palestine Olympic Committee and the Palestinian Athletics Federation condemned the move, according to Palestinian al-Quds media agency.
In addition, British comedian Eddie Izzard was banned by the marathon’s organizers from running in the race, as he refused to cancel a show he played in Tel Aviv on Thursday—a move in contravention to the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Local BDS activists were also present at the race, holding up signs encouraging runners to join the movement.
The event included a “family race” of just 1.2 miles (2 km), as well as a 6.2 miles (10 km race), a 13-mile half marathon (21 km), and the full marathon, 26.2 miles (42 km).
Manger Square, a large courtyard in front of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, acted as the marathon’s starting and finishing line, as well as the gathering point for the festivities of the marathon.
Palestine TV, the official television station of the Palestinian Authority, projected a live feed of the race from the square. Many of the runners from shorter races got to the square before those competing in the full marathon finished.
During the festivities, volunteers and medics passed out water, fruit, dates and granola bars to keep runners’ energy level up.
Palestinian scouts greeted runners at the finish line, awarding them their medals.
Mervin Steenkamp, who hails from South Africa, won the full marathon for the second consecutive year, while Thaer Shanaah, from Gaza, won second place, and U.S. citizen Taylor Broadwell came in third.
In the square DJs played music, while families gathered, enjoying the festive atmosphere. Youth danced Dakba while waving Palestinian flags and traditional keffiyeh scarves.
Palestinian flags were in abundance at the race, as many runners clutched the national symbol, handing off their flags back and forth to each other throughout the race.
One local artist, Rana Bishara, based in Beit Jala, featured some of her political based art at the marathon, including a piece in honor of Palestinian children an oversized abacus, an educational math toy for children, which was designed with barbed wire as poles to hold the beads instead of thin wooden rods.