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Gazan runners barred from Bethlehem marathon

By Sara Sidner and Kareem Khadder, CNN
April 22, 2013 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The race will be in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
  • Israel says the request to travel to the West Bank didn't pass muster
  • An Israeli group said Gaza residents have been permitted to travel to the West Bank

(CNN) -- Israel has denied the request of 26 Palestinians from Gaza to participate in a long-distance race in the West Bank, bitterly disappointing Palestinian athletes and officials.

The Bethlehem marathon will be held in the historic city on Sunday.

Israel said the move was made because the request does not meet the "criteria set in order to transfer from Gaza to the West Bank."

Israel has fought for years with militants based in Gaza, the Palestinian territory controlled by Hamas, a government that does not recognize the Jewish state.

Ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, are tense and sometimes antagonistic, but the two entities recognize and work with each other.

"In Gaza rules a terror organization, who wages war against the state of Israel, and its civilians. Consequently, in accordance with the Israeli government decision, which was approved by the Supreme Court, the entrance of the Gaza Strip residents to the Israeli territory, and their passage to the West Bank, is possible only in exceptional humanitarian cases, mainly urgent medical cases. The request in question didn't apply as one of those cases," Israel said.

Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said it's the "first international marathon in Palestine," and organizers expect the event -- highlighting the issues of the right of movement for Palestinians -- to be peaceful and joyous.

"The main message of the marathon by the organizers and by the sponsors is a message of peace, and the message is the right to movement for Palestinians who are under occupation," Baboun said.

One of the top criticisms for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank is the lack of freedom of movement, having to get permission from Israel before they can travel into or through Israeli territory.

Israeli says checkpoints that control traffic into and out of the territories and barrier walls have been put up for security purposes.

One of those who won't be able to run is Nader Al-Masri, who participated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Another runner, Sari Bashi -- founder of Gisha, a human rights group -- said she read with sadness and horror of the Boston Marathon attack.

She said she hoped that the event in Bethlehem "would help restore the image of the marathon as an innocent, popular sporting event that brings out the best in both athletes and spectators."

Bashi cites a quote from an Israeli runner asking the Israeli authorities to reconsider allowing the athletes from Gaza to participate in Bethlehem.

"In ancient Greece, ahead of the Olympics, people would stop all their battles and allow safe passage for the runners and fans. I think we should learn from that," Bashi said.

Bashi is not running in the marathon. But Baboun and Signe Fischer Smidt, a Danish humanitarian worker who came up with the marathon idea, will be participating.

This is the second time marathon runners in Gaza have been unable to take part in a race. In March, Hamas refused to let women run alongside men in a race sponsored by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The agency said the race could not go on if women could not participate.

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