Middle East

Israel bars Gaza runners from first West Bank marathon

Palestinian Olympian runner Nadar al-Masri
Image caption The Palestinian Olympic Committee has asked Israel to grant permits to Gazan runners

Israel is refusing permission for Palestinian runners from the Gaza Strip to take part in a marathon in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The race on 21 April will be the first marathon to be held in the occupied Palestinian territory.

But the Israeli military says the athletes do not meet the criteria required to leave Gaza.

Twenty-two Gazan runners, including former Olympian, Nadar al-Masri, hoped to reach the start line.

A woman, Sanaa Abu-Bahit, also planned to participate in a shorter race.

The athletes, the race organisers and the Palestinian Olympic Committee have asked the Israeli authorities to reconsider their position but have not received a reply.

"The Israelis should look at this purely as a sporting event. It has nothing to do with politics," says Samia al-Wazir, the spokeswoman for the Palestinian Olympic Committee.

"This is an event in the West Bank and every Palestinian, not just athletes, should have the right to attend."

Israel strictly controls movement in and out of Gaza making it difficult for Palestinians there to make the short journey to the West Bank.

It also controls entry to the West Bank via the border with Jordan.

'Second disappointment'

An Israeli military statement said: "The entrance of the Gaza Strip residents to Israeli territory, and their passage to the West Bank, is possible only in exceptional humanitarian cases, mainly urgent medical cases."

It added that this was because Gaza was ruled by Hamas which Israel considers a "terror organisation".

The decision has been criticised by human rights groups.

Gisha, an Israeli organisation supporting freedom of movement, has sent a letter appealing against the refusal to allow the runners into the West Bank.

"Our clients... would be honoured to participate in the first all-Palestinian marathon," wrote the Gisha Legal Director, Nomi Heger.

She also says that each month the military issues permits for thousands of Palestinians to enter Israel from Gaza, subject to security checks, and that it has defined participation in events sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, like the Bethlehem marathon, as justification for travel.

In the past, Israel has issued permits for Mr Masri to travel via the Erez Crossing, for training abroad and in the West Bank.

The Gazan runners' inability to compete in the Bethlehem marathon is their second disappointment this month.

The United Nations cancelled its annual Gaza marathon after Hamas refused to allow women to take part.

An official Israel Defense Forces blog criticised Hamas for that decision.

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