In Bethlehem, even running is a political statement

Despite their difficult circumstances, Palestinians in Bethlehem find ways to remind the world that Israel’s occupation cannot exist forever.

A young woman runs next to the Israeli separation wall as hundreds of Palestinian and international athletes took part in the the inaugural Palestine Marathon which took place in Bethlehem, West Bank, April 21, 2013.
A young woman runs next to the Israeli separation wall as hundreds of Palestinian and international athletes took part in the the inaugural Palestine Marathon which took place in Bethlehem, West Bank, April 21, 2013.

The organizers of the Palestine Marathon, held annually in the West Bank city of Bethlehem since 2013, recently announced that its next run will take place on Friday 1st April, 2016.

The event – one my most memorable highlights of 2015 – is a thrilling experience. The thousands that gathered in Manger Square, where the run kicks off, included Muslim and Christian Palestinians, internationals from dozens of foreign countries, and even some Israeli Jews. Some came to support the marathon’s motto of “the right to movement;” some just came for the exercise. A few joked that they were practicing running away from soldiers for the next time they went to a demonstration.

As the runners passed through the streets, we were watched by children cheering and waving Palestinian flags from their windows, with the occasional men teasing from the sidewalks: “Forget this crap habibi, yalla come have coffee with us!” Among the crowds were groups wearing T-shirts promoting various causes, while artists walked by showcasing their work. This year one artist, Rana Bishara, carried a large wooden cross covered with empty tear gas shells used by the Israeli security forces.

The most notable feature of the Palestine Marathon, however, is the route itself. Starting from the Church of the Nativity (said to be the site of Jesus Christ’s birth), runners are taken through the streets of the city and into the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps – the entrance to the former marked by an arch with a giant key representing the Palestinian right of return. The route then goes along Israel’s separation wall, where runners witness firsthand the concrete barrier enclosing the town, the security towers and cameras leering down at them, and the graffiti displaying political images and defiant slogans.

A Palestinian father and son run past the Israeli separation wall dividing the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the second annual Palestine Marathon, April 11, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)
A Palestinian father and son run past the Israeli separation wall dividing the West Bank town of Bethlehem during the second annual Palestine Marathon, April 11, 2014. (photo: Activestills.org)

Bethlehem is in many ways an exceptional place in the West Bank due to the mix of its religious significance, cultural vibrancy, international presence, and relative autonomy as an urban center in the PA-governed Area A. But even with its stature, the historic city cannot escape the fate of the other Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

Friday marked the 49th Christmas which Bethlehem has celebrated under Israeli military occupation. While thousands gathered around the massive lighted tree in Manger Square to the sounds of church bells and fireworks, Israeli soldiers just a short drive away continued manning their checkpoints and patrolling the separation wall. Long lines of drivers waited for their cars to be inspected, and pedestrians passed through metal detectors holding up their ID cards. All the while, an Israeli flag waved above the scene to remind the people who to thank for their situation.

Bethlehem’s endurance under occupation has become more difficult due to the violent unrests that have persisted since October. Palestinian protesters routinely clashed with the army at the checkpoints hurling curses, stones, or burning tires at soldiers. The IDF hit back with tear gas, arrest raids, and live and rubber bullets that killed dozens and injured scores more in the Bethlehem area alone. In one video, an Israeli soldier on a megaphone warned the residents of Aida camp that “we will gas you until you die” if demonstrations continued.

Israeli border policemen are seen during clashes with Palestinian youths in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, November 13, 2015. (Mustafa Bader/Activestills.org)
Israeli border policemen are seen during clashes with Palestinian youths in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, November 13, 2015. (Mustafa Bader/Activestills.org)

The consequences of the violent climate was reflected in the more modest public celebrations and lower numbers of visitors during this year’s Christmas holidays – an effect that brings another blow to the city’s welfare, particularly to its Christian community. For years, the crippling reality of the occupation has pushed many Christians to leave Palestine to seek better opportunities elsewhere, with some leaving out of concern that political or violent Islamist groups could grow and threaten their rights as a religious minority.

Israeli hasbarists and their allies like to claim that these changes in the shrinking Christian community (a worrisome trend occurring throughout the Middle East) reveal the discriminatory attitudes and policies of Palestine’s Muslim majority, presenting Israel as the only haven and caretaker for Arab Christians in the Middle East. But as +972 writer Ryan Rodrick Beiler illustrated yesterday, and as journalist Jonathan Cook described about Nazareth in Israel, this is an ignorant view used to manipulate the Christian community for an undesired political agenda.

Contrary to Israel’s claims, and despite their minority numbers, Christians have been and continue to be a fundamental part of Palestinian society and national identity alongside their Muslim compatriots. Many of the greatest political leaders, intellectuals, writers, and cultural icons in Palestinian history were Christian. Today, Palestinian Christians continue to be among the foremost activists combating the Israeli occupation on the streets and on university campuses. The vast majority in the Christian community – including those living in the city of Jesus’ birth – is under no illusions of what the biggest threat to their existence really is: Israel’s relentless repression of Palestinian presence in the Holy Land, irrespective of their religion.

A Christmas tree made of razor wire and tear gas grenades is displayed in Manger Square, Bethlehem as part of an activist art exhibit, December 21, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)
A Christmas tree made of razor wire and tear gas grenades is displayed in Manger Square, Bethlehem as part of an activist art exhibit, December 21, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

It is unfortunate that Christmas in Bethlehem requires a lament for the difficult circumstances which the Palestinian people – Muslim and Christian – have to cope with in their daily lives. A simple walk around the city becomes a haunting reminder that the basic rights to movement, religious practice, and liberty in the Holy Land are not human entitlements at birth, but special privileges that require arduous political struggle to obtain.

Thankfully though, the Palestinian community has always found ways to remind themselves, Israelis, and the world that this reality cannot be the case forever, and that despite their hardships, they can still celebrate life to the fullest extent possible.

So if anyone is interested in demanding that Christmas’ home city be freed from occupation, in making a symbolic political statement against oppressive barriers, or in just having a good workout – see you at the Palestine Marathon in April.

Correction:
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Bethlehem has celebrated Christmas 48 times under military occupation. We got out the calculator and it turns out we miscalculated. Friday was the 49th Christmas since the start of the occupation.