Running the Palestine Marathon
An unanticipated window into the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
This article was originally published by TomDispatch.
I NEVER INTENDED to run a marathon, but when I realized that I would be on hand for the 2019 Palestine Marathon, I registered. I did so in solidarity with the goals of the aptly named Right to Movement, the global running community founded in 2013 to organize the first annual marathon there.
The irony was not lost on me, however: in training for a marathon meant to highlight the right to freedom of movement, I would utilize my privilege as a foreigner to access land that Palestinians themselves could not enter. I trained in the West Bank, dotted with Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military bases; in the Gaza Strip, the Mediterranean coastal enclave under Israeli blockade since 2007; in the northern Israeli city of Haifa; and in Jerusalem, the western part of which has been part of Israel since 1948 and the eastern part of which Israel occupied in 1967.
While I realized that there would be challenges during my training runs, what I hadn’t anticipated was the window they would provide into the lives of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
February 14th: 15-mile training run, northern West Bank
I stretch my hamstrings just after dawn on the Dawabsheh family’s restored porch in the village of Duma, facing the scorched remains of their neighbors’ home. I met Eman, Ma’amoun, and their five sons in July 2015 after an Israeli settler had firebombed their home, as well as that of those neighbors (and distant cousins) Sa’ad and Riham Dawabsheh. Eman’s family had not been at home at the time. Sa’ad, Riham, and their children were not so lucky. Four-year-old Ahmad was rescued from the blaze and, despite severe burns, survived. Although Riham and Sa’ad were also pulled from the inferno, they succumbed to their injuries. Eighteen-month-old Ali’s tiny charred corpse was found in the ruins of the house after the flames were extinguished.I begin a slow warm-up jog through the village, imagining baby Ali’s first steps on wobbly toddler legs. I run past Ma’amoun’s goat sheds and cross through olive groves until I reach the main road and head south. I see signs for Shiloh and Shvut Rahel—Israeli settlements deep in the West Bank—and pass armed hitchhiking youths wearing knitted skullcaps.
Narrow, sun-bleached side roads wend around terraced rocky hills and into neighboring villages. On one such road, Israeli army vehicles drive past as teenage soldiers stare at me from the back of an open jeep, assault weapons in their laps. Soon, I reach the entrance to an Israeli military base and promptly turn around before anyone questions me.
The air grows warm, but I have more mileage to pound out, so I start up a rocky path and soon find myself on the outskirts of another village. Pulling out my phone to see where I am, I’m startled and check again. I hadn’t realized that Mughayyir was this close to Duma. I had been in Mughayyir only a week earlier with the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Residents of the village had walked us through a recent attack by Israeli settlers from the nearby outpost of Adei Ad. The farmers were working their land here—one man indicated the slope behind him as thick fog rolled in. The armed settlers came from that outpost—he pointed to a nearby hill—and began attacking the villagers. A Palestinian flag fluttered under an overcast sky, marking the spot where 38-year-old Hamdi Na’asan had been shot and killed.
I jog back toward Duma thinking of the photo I had seen of Na’asan holding his four children. It’s not until I pass more armed youth wearing yarmulkes that the realization hits me. The settlers who killed Hamdi Na’asan came from the outpost of Adei Ad. The settler who burned Ali Dawabsheh to death had also lived in Adei Ad.
A goat herder waves to me from a terraced hill as I near the entrance to Duma. It’s Ma’amoun Dawabsheh.
February 22nd: 16-mile training run, the Gaza Strip
I head toward Gaza City’s seaport. The sun hasn’t crested. The air is crisp and cool. I run south alongside the waves, relieved that their rhythmic pulse drowns out the Israeli drones overhead. Their incessant buzzing always puts me on edge. One dawn in 2004, armed drones killed two militants outside the building where I was staying. Children scooped up scraps of the men’s scalps on small sticks, presenting them for me to film.
I jog past youths maneuvering gracefully on paddleboards and young men pushing old wooden skiffs out to sea. An elderly woman is collecting something from the sand, whether shells or bait I can’t tell. Four miles into the run, I spot a pipe embedded in the side of a high sandy bluff discharging a stream of water too wide for me to cross. I scan the cliff, eager to reach the coastal road above it and notice a dilapidated cement staircase. I can’t imagine where it leads, but it goes up. I jog up the stairs and find myself in the ruined remnants of a building, most likely shelled by Israeli gunships during the 2014 war.
I run through those ruins to a surrounding wall and locked gate, climb the wall, leap to the sidewalk, and continue jogging. Only then do I wonder: Did anyone see me? A foreign woman appearing out of nowhere, dropping from a wall surrounding a destroyed building, and running away is anything but inconspicuous. I half expect armed men to pull up on a motorcycle and begin questioning me, but the road, to my relief, remains deserted.
I return to the beach and jog on it until I reach Wadi Gaza, a wetland rich in biological diversity that was declared a nature reserve in 2000. When I first visited this valley in 2012, however, the fresh water that once flowed into the sea here had already been replaced by human waste from nearby refugee camps. I returned in 2015 to find that a small sewage treatment plant had been built but was not yet operational. For 18 months, Israel had delayed the arrival of the aerators that mix oxygen into the waste water. They were finally allowed into blockaded Gaza later that year. The plant then operated until 2017 when, thanks to the Strip’s ongoing electricity shortages, it stopped. The river of untreated sewage I now confront is only a small part of the nearly four million cubic feet of excrement that are estimated to spew daily into the sea from the Strip.
I run to the coastal road bridge, jogging past the plant’s large pool now brimming with waste. I can’t help but retch. I soon leave the stench behind me, aware that Wadi Gaza’s residents deal with that odor—and the resulting health risks and mosquitoes—every day
There are no sidewalks now. Curious boys on donkey-carts stare at me. At the halfway point of my training run, I return to the beach and turn around. Teenage boys drinking tea at a small campfire pause their animated conversation to cheer me on.
As Gaza’s seaport reappears, hazy in the distance, two thundering explosions suddenly reverberate. I look around, but there’s no one in sight to tell me what caused them. Shortly thereafter, I pass families enjoying the Gaza City promenade, toddlers riding tricycles, children playing soccer. Two women walk in my direction, fully covered (aside from their eyes) in black niqab. How will they regard a jogging, bare-headed foreign woman? I manage a “good morning” in Arabic as our paths cross. One of them claps, the other gives me a thumbs-up, and both call out, “Brava aleiki!” (Bravo to you!)
The explosions, I’m later told, were rockets that Hamas fighters had shot into the sea “for testing.”
March 3rd: 10-mile training run, the Gaza Strip
I run north on the narrow sidewalk through Beach refugee camp in the emerging sunlight. The guards near Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s house pay me no mind, but small children peer at me from the doorways of ramshackle cinderblock dwellings, their corrugated zinc roofs secured with chunks of concrete. Eighty-six thousand refugees live in Beach camp’s one-third of a square mile, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world.
The steep cliff bordering the sea is strewn with car parts, broken appliances, jagged concrete blocks, and twisted rebar. A man and a teenager push a small skiff into the water to try their luck at a morning catch. Their luck is likely to be slim. After all, the Israeli navy permits fishing only up to six nautical miles off the coast, a restriction that limits the catch—and deepens Beach camp’s already endemic poverty. In 2015, I accompanied Majd, who is from Beach camp, on a nighttime fishing trip. Snagging sardines in his net under the stars, he told me about fishermen he knew who had been shot at sea. The danger continues: in 2018, the Israeli navy killed one fisherman, injured six others, and arrested 53.
Past the camp, I connect with a dirt road and push forward until I can see what looks like a boundary fence in the distance. Israeli soldiers often shoot Palestinians they deem to have come too close to the barrier, which Israel constructed between 1994 and 1996 in order to control the movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip. Just the previous week, I saw someone shot by Israeli soldiers at a demonstration at another section of the barrier. I believe it was 14-year-old Yousef al-Dayah, who died from his wound, but I can’t be sure. Not wanting to risk getting too close, I turn around and head back towards Gaza City.
The fisherman’s shacks ahead look idyllic but as I approach, one dog, then many, begin to bark furiously. I retreat, but they chase me. Given the chronic shortages of medicine in Gaza, if a dog bites me, I wonder whether rabies shots would even be available. I halt and the snarling dogs surround me. “Go away,” I command sternly and, to my amazement, they do
I walk cautiously toward the main road and, as the dogs resume their sun-drenched poses, begin jogging again.
March 7th: 17-mile training run, Haifa
Hebrew and Arabic mingle freely around me on Haifa’s beachside promenade, which seems to lack the tension I’m accustomed to in other mixed cities in Israel. I pass the beach house that Rachel Corrie’s family rented during the civil court case they brought against the Israeli government. Rachel, an American human rights activist, had been trying to protect a Palestinian family’s home in Rafah, Gaza, from demolition on March 16, 2003. An Israeli military bulldozer ran over Rachel, crushing her to death. I helped the Corrie family with logistics during the trial in 2010, working in that very beach house where Rachel’s parents and four international eyewitnesses stayed. The surf had been calming as a grieving family went up against the Israeli state. The Corrie family lost the case.
March 12th: 20-mile training run, West and East Jerusalem
I follow dirt pathways through the sparse Jerusalem Forest and then, stunned, I halt. A cattle car is suspended on train tracks high above me. I’ve unintentionally run onto the grounds of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. I feel shame to be so casually jogging on a site memorializing one of humanity’s most egregious atrocities, as well as horror thinking of those who were herded into that cattle car and so many others like it. I flash back to my first Yad Vashem visit in 1997. Our guide explained that the cattle car faced the sweeping hills of Jerusalem in order to intentionally stir Zionist sentiment and suggest that Israel—and its eternal capital Jerusalem—was the hope springing from the Holocaust. The shame and horror I feel is laced with anger that the cattle car in front of me and the tragedy it represents has been exploited to justify settler colonialism in the region.
I find myself at Herod’s Gate outside the Old City of Jerusalem exactly at the 20-mile mark. I need to hydrate, shower, and rest, but the entrances to the Old City are blocked by Israeli police. I join a few youths watching from the sidelines as tensions mount between Palestinians being barred entry and the police. An Israeli settler approaches Herod’s Gate. The police permit him to pass.
“What happened?” I ask.
Someone had evidently thrown a firebomb at an Israeli police station on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, one of the holiest sites of both Islam and Judaism and long a flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This latest flare-up happened in the wake of the Islamic Waqf, the religious trust managing Muslim holy sites in and around Al Aqsa Mosque, opening Bab al-Rahma—the only Old City gate that leads directly to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Rightwing Israeli extremist groups pounced on this act, using it as political fodder to promote their messianic, nationalist dream of re-building a Jewish Temple here and so exacerbating Palestinian fears that Israel intends to partition the holy site.
Herod’s Gate opens half an hour later. I walk to my friends’ home, passing a mother speaking Hebrew to her toddler. I realize that I’ve been hearing more Hebrew than I’ve ever heard in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, a sign of creeping Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.
March 21st: Arrival at Bethlehem
It’s eerily quiet walking to Manger Square to pick up my marathon kit. The shop-fronts are all shuttered. Yesterday, Israeli soldiers killed 26-year-old Ahmad Manasra as he stopped his car in al-Khader (just outside Bethlehem) to help an injured man who had also been shot by a soldier. Bethlehem is observing a general strike to mourn Manasra. I study the map provided in the kit: tomorrow we will run right through al-Khader, not far from where he was killed.
March 22nd: Marathon, Bethlehem
At 5:30 a.m., I arrive at the Church of Nativity, stretch, and buy a Dixie cup of Arabic coffee. Manger Square glows in the early morning light as it slowly fills with runners. Those of us attempting the full 26.2 miles make our way to the starting line and the race begins. A brief descent from the church is followed by a long, even stretch with an open view of the sun rising over the neighboring town of Beit Sahour. We pass into Aida refugee camp, under a statue of a giant key, symbolizing the Palestinian right of return to the homes from which they were expelled during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Soon, we run through Dheisheh, another refugee camp. In March 2002, my friends Fadi and Najeeb brought me to homes here that the Israeli army had reduced to rubble during an incursion earlier that month. Fadi’s words from the video I filmed then return to me now: “This is the house of refugees from 1948. They came here and built the camp for their families and refugees. And the same thing happened in 2002. They don’t know what to do about it, you know?” Fadi fell silent, then added, “I am sure that they will rebuild the camp.”
We enter al-Khader, but can’t go further without encountering an Israeli checkpoint. Half-marathoners will turn, run back to the Church, and stop. Those of us doing the full marathon will simply repeat the course, demonstrating something less than the right to movement. At the cone marking the turn-around point, I whisper a silent, secular prayer for Ahmad Manasra, killed near here two days ago, and head back to the church. I complete the 26.2 miles in four hours and 57 minutes.
MUCH HAS OCCURRED since that marathon only a month ago: a flare-up between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israeli elections leading to a future governing coalition led once again by Benjamin Netanyahu that is likely to propagate yet more intolerance and racism.
But amid all of that, one particular incident haunts me. On March 27th, the Israeli army killed Sajed Muzher, an 17-year-old paramedic, in Dheisheh refugee camp. In a photo of the incident, army vehicles drive down the camp’s main road, stones thrown by Palestinian youth littering the street behind them. Five days earlier, I had willed my legs to propel me down that very same road.
It’s the contrast that still jars me all these weeks later back in Brooklyn. The Bethlehem marathon—meant to highlight a people’s right to movement—was effectively bookended by the killings of Ahmad Manasra in al-Khader and Sajed Muzher in Dheisheh.
Staring at the photo of Muzher’s youthful face and thinking of Manasra, Hamdi Na’asan, and Ali Dawabsheh, of the acute suffering of the besieged people of Gaza, it’s so clear to me: the right to freedom of movement should be inalienable and inextricably linked to the right to be safe in one’s own home, the right to farm one’s own land, the right to fish in the sea. The right to live. To thrive.
Jen Marlowe, a TomDispatch regular, is a US-based journalist, an award-winning author, documentary filmmaker, playwright, the communications associate for Just Vision, and co-producer of their film Naila and the Uprising. She is the founder of Donkeysaddle Projects.