Hundreds of athletes braved freezing rain on Sunday 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 various formats of the race, which began at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) as the West Bank town was buffeted by cold winds and an unseasonal downpour.
There were 100 runners competing in the full marathon (42.2 kilometres/26.1 miles) with Palestinians taking the top three spots.
The winner was Abdel Nasser Awajneh from Jericho who came in first with a time of 3 hours, 9 minutes, 47 seconds. In second place was Bethlehem resident Motaz Masalmeh in 3:23:21 followed by Yahya al-Jamal in 3:26:00.
“It feels really great,” Awajneh, 34, told AFP after the race. “I spent two months training for this marathon in the mountains near Jericho.”
The 34-year-old said he had taken longer than expected because he had taken a wrong turn and had to double back on himself.
Some 150 people joined the half marathon, while 250 or so joined either the 10-kilometre (six mile) or five-kilometre (three mile) races.
As they ran, some wore the traditional keffiyeh scarf, others carried the Palestinian flag, and some of the women wore headscarves.
Other donned bin liners to keep off the driving rain.
“It was a success. I’m really happy,” said Laerke Hein, one of the Danish organisers, saying it had taken 18 months to arrange.
“We set an $85 (65 euro) price for foreigners, while we set a lower price for locals so that they could take part,” she said.
Another 22 Palestinian runners from Gaza who had hoped to join the race were not able to run after Israel denied them permission to travel to the West Bank.
Sunday’s race, dubbed the “Right to Movement Palestine Marathon,” took runners on a 21-kilometre tour of the hillside city which Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus, passing through refugee camps and large sections of Israel’s towering West Bank barrier.
Marathon runners had to do two laps of the course after organisers were not able to find an uninterrupted 42-kilometre stretch within Area A, the small portion of the Israeli-occupied 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.
A runner from London said she decided to take part after the Gaza marathon, which had been due to take place on April 10, was abruptly cancelled by the territory’s Hamas rulers, who said they would not let men and women run together.
“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,” 34-year-old Komar Nawaz told AFP after running in the 10k.
“It is fun to see the world and run,” said a 62-year-old woman from Denmark who gave her name only as Pia. “When you run here, you think a lot about the situation.”
Firas al-Khatib from Bethlehem, who came second in the 10 km, said he was just excited to be taking part in the first West Bank marathon.
“I hope we have more events like this in Palestine,” he grinned.