Jerusalem came to a standstill on 16 March as thousands of runners gathered to participate in the city’s second annual marathon. But while the marathon was presented as a friendly and innocent international sporting event, in reality it contributed to normalizing Israel’s control over the city and its discriminatory policies towards Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.
Among the 15,000 runners was Poppy Hardee, a British woman living in Bethlehem, who decided to run the marathon in protest on behalf of her Palestinian friends who were not granted permission to access Jerusalem for the event. Hardee encountered abuse from Israeli soldiers in the race, with one of them snatching the Palestinian flag that she carried from her hands and spitting on it.
Although the race was heavily promoted worldwide and open for international participants, Palestinians were effectively excluded from running. While there was no overt discriminatory policy against those with West Bank identity cards within the registration process, in reality most West Bank residents would not be granted permission by Israel to access Jerusalem for the event.
Hardee applied for the marathon and started training with a Palestinian friend, a resident of the West Bank, who also intended to run. They were dismayed to find out he would not be granted access to Jerusalem for the race for “security reasons.”
“He doesn’t ever get permits, because of security issues, so he can’t go,” Hardee told The Electronic Intifada. “And realistically for Palestinians wanting to run it, the majority aren’t going to get permission. …. So it’s like an effective ban. A lot of my friends from the West Bank wanted to come and support me on the day, but they couldn’t. It’s just not a normal race.”
The effective exclusion of Palestinians from the Jerusalem marathon highlights the irony that while foreigners are able to freely visit Jerusalem and its holy sites, many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have rarely, or even never, been able to visit the city.
Another issue with the marathon was its misleading presentation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “I am proud that Israel’s capital is part of the marathons held throughout the world,” read a letter from Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, in a booklet presented to runners. While Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital shortly after its “declaration of independence” in 1948, most governments in the world have never recognized it as such.
“Most of the world doesn’t recognize it as the capital of Israel,” said Hardee. “So the fact that that’s what its branding itself as, ‘come and run in the capital of Israel, run the Jerusalem marathon,’ it’s not really accurate.”
Furthermore, even the route of the marathon gave a one-sided view of the city. Marathon organizers described the event’s route as a “run through history,” though it presented an exclusively Israeli history. The route was deliberately designed to show runners the sites which Israel deemed important, while sidelining Palestinian history and presence in the city.
The marathon began at Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and passed such sites as the Israel Museum, the Israeli high court, the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres, the Jerusalem Municipality, and Hebrew University.
“It’s called the ‘Jerusalem marathon’ but it’s making it a wholly Jewish experience,” said Hardee, who recently also ran a half marathon organized by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza. “It goes to the old city walls but doesn’t go into the heart of where [Palestinians] would be living or their experience living in Jerusalem.”
While the Jerusalem marathon website made reference to East Jerusalem in its runners’ guide to the city, it failed to use the term “Palestinians” or recognize their presence in the city. “Eastern Jerusalem has a different atmosphere from the rest of the city,” said the guide. “Eastern Jerusalem, covering an area of about 70 square kilometers, is mostly the home of former Jordanian citizens.”
The marathon and its route were also used to promote Jerusalem internationally as a developed, fun, secure city. “The importance of the marathon … lies in the opportunity to present to the participants, visitors and the public alike, the beauty, development and uniformity of the city of Jerusalem,” said Elisah Peleg of Jerusalem Municipality in his letter to marathon runners.
The Palestinian experience of the city, however, is somewhat different to the shining picture presented by marathon organizers. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are subject to an abundance of discriminatory laws and practices, particularly when it comes to gaining building permits.
While Peleg wrote of Jerusalem’s “development,” development is an almost exclusively Israeli right. In reality, Palestinians are almost never granted permission to build, and home demolitions are a frequent occurrence. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, approximately 392 Palestinian homes have been demolished in Jerusalem since 2004.
Other problems facing Palestinian Jerusalemites include land expropriation, settlement expansion and settler violence, as well as the constant threat of revocation of their Jerusalem residency rights.
The marathon even helps to fund these discriminatory policies. The runners’ registration fee of $60 went to the Jerusalem Municipality, the organization responsible for revoking residency and demolishing Palestinian homes.
“[The Jerusalem Municipality] is negative towards Palestinians as an organization, so they’re not really someone you’d want to be sponsoring with your money,” said Hardee, who hadn’t realized where her fee went when she signed up. “I wrote them a letter asking for my money back and they said it’s non-refundable. So I thought if I’ve already paid to do it, I would run it anyway but make it some kind of demonstration.
“Unfortunately all these runners’ money will be going to the Jerusalem marathon. I wasn’t aware and I was living and working in Palestine, so I don’t think most runners will be aware. I don’t think they will care … They won’t understand the implications.”
For most runners, the marathon was presented as an opportunity to visit Israel and tour the holy sites of Jerusalem. The marathon website offered reduced rates on flights and hotels in an attempt to encourage runners of the world to view the city through Israel’s eyes.
Because of the discriminatory nature of the marathon and its misleading representation of the city of Jerusalem, there was a general call to boycott Adidas, the sportswear manufacturers who sponsored the marathon, from the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
“There are many groups which boycott sports in occupation or apartheid, which happened with South Africa,” Hardee said. “I think a similar thing should happen with Israel. Sport is a positive thing which brings people together, and a marathon is a really exciting thing for a city to hold. But I don’t think Israel, in its current state, deserves to have the privilege of people coming from around the world to run in its city.”
While for many the best option would be to boycott the whole event, Hardee decided to run anyway as a form of protest for Palestine. On the day, she wore the Palestinian colors of red, green, white and black, a sash which said “Palestine,” and she carried a Palestinian flag.
“I think it’s a good idea to boycott it, but boycotting is not a visible thing,” said Hardee before she ran. “If you boycott products it’s more effective, because it will directly impact sales or the success of the company. But boycotting a marathon — you wouldn’t notice the ones who didn’t come. I think it’s better to highlight the disadvantages than not do it at all.”
On the day of the race, Israeli flags lined the streets, and the city was eerily still. Despite the rain, many came out to offer encouragement to the passing runners. Though Hardee found most of her spectators and fellow runners to be surprisingly encouraging about her outfit, others were not so supportive.
When running through the Old City, Poppy found herself running amid a group of Israeli soldiers running on behalf of the organization Standing Strong Against Terror, who harassed her and stole the Palestinian flag.
“One of the soldiers pushed me over, took my flag and spat on it, and swore at me,” she said. “Another woman pushed me and told me ‘This is Israel, Jewish land’ and told me to go back to Gaza.”
Hardee’s act of protest may have brought a visible reminder of Palestine to the marathon. But for most runners crossing the finish line, their lasting impression of Jerusalem may be one of a modern, clean and thoroughly Israeli city, with no glimpse into the oppression of Palestinians happening just streets away from the marathon’s carefully orchestrated route.
The home demolitions, the apartheid policies, the denial of access to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — all were hidden away for the marathon behind a veneer of legitimacy, as the world ran idly by.
Emily Lawrence is a recent graduate and independent writer currently based in Bethlehem, West Bank. She can be followed on Twitter at @EmilyWarda.