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One Palestinian group is running to restore freedom of movement

Diala Isid, the head of the Right to Movement campaign.
Diala Isid, the head of the Right to Movement campaign.

Reading, research and short trips are simply not enough for visitors to Palestine to understand how difficult it is for those living under occupation with restrictions imposed on their movement as they go about their daily lives. Palestinians are caged in by a forbidding wall, and have to negotiate permanent and temporary Israeli military checkpoints almost everywhere that they need to go, whether it be to work, school, university, hospital or simply to visit relatives and friends.

“People take human rights for granted until they are no longer there,” Diala Isid told me. “In Palestine, we are deprived of basic human rights like freedom of movement. To highlight the restrictions imposed on us and our right to free movement, we decided to start a running campaign so people can join in and run with us here in Palestine.”

The Right to Movement campaign was born. Runners who participate in the campaign’s marathons, explains Diala, experience a taste of the daily reality of living in Gaza and the occupied the West Bank. Travel permits in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank are issued by the Israeli occupation authorities, and are often refused arbitrarily.

Runners can explore the infrastructure that sustains the occupation and meet the people most badly affected in refugee camps along the way. Restricting their movement is a major tool employed by Israel which has a devastating effect on Palestinian lives.

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Twenty-nine-year-old Diala is the head of the Right to Movement campaign. She described her trips to visit her parents in Bethlehem: Unable to travel directly from Ramallah through Jerusalem, she has to take a much longer route. “A 30-minute drive from Ramallah to Bethlehem turns into a one-and-a-half-hour journey because of the checkpoints that I have to pass through with my Palestinian ID.” Identity cards are also used as a weapon of the occupation to fragment the local population, she pointed out.

The idea for the campaign came in 2012 when Palestinians in Bethlehem wanted to organise a marathon but found it impossible to map the full route without hitting obstacles.

We don’t even control a 42.2 kilometre stretch of road in the West Bank. Runners have to use the same circuit four times in order to finish the traditional marathon distance.

“It’s the only road that we can close to traffic because of the Israeli occupation. We have no choice but to settle for a 10 kilometre route.”

That route begins in Bethlehem’s Nativity Square, runs along the Separation Wall and passes through two refugee camps before finishing at the Church of the Nativity. It is an effective way to draw attention to the constraints faced by Palestinians in their daily lives.

“The fact that we can’t even run a full marathon properly illustrates the limitations that we face. Hence, we all have a responsibility to do all we can to raise awareness.”

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In December 2016, to demonstrate that the journey of Biblical Mary and Joseph would be even more difficult in present-day Israel, Diala organised 22 Palestinian relay runners, 11 men and 11 women dressed as “Mary and Joseph”, to create a contemporary nativity play called “Mary can’t move”. Starting from Nazareth, they headed for Bethlehem. The first major checkpoint appeared at the border of the West Bank through the eight-metre-high Separation Wall.

Palestinians try to cross separation wall during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan in Ramallah, West Bank on 31 January 2020. [Issam Rimawi - Anadolu Agency]

Palestinians try to cross separation wall during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan in Ramallah, West Bank on 31 January 2020.
[Issam Rimawi – Anadolu Agency]

“It took us 12 and a half hours of running, passing through six Israeli checkpoints and multiple illegal settlements all over the West Bank. And we couldn’t access Jerusalem because some of the runners weren’t granted the required permit. This project showed the world that despite living under torment, we can get our message across in a peaceful way; that’s how we want to live, in peace.”

“Mary can’t move” reminded everyone that the conflict in the Holy Land has nothing to do with religion — there are Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims — and everything to do with freedom and self-determination.

With US President Donald Trump’s “peace plan” allowing Israel to annex a huge portion of the occupied West Bank, the situation looks set to get even more restrictive for the people of Palestine. The Israeli settlement blocs are home to more than 400,000 illegal settlers, serviced by a network of roads for use by Jews only and checkpoints that restrict the movement of the Palestinians. Trump’s vision for a Palestinian state is a series of non-contiguous enclaves.

“The plan gives Israel what it wants and doesn’t serve us Palestinians. They want to legalise the Israeli settlements, annex the Jordan Valley and steal more of our land,” said Diala. “The right to freedom of movement remains a dream and the so-called peace plan will make restrictions permanent. The West Bank cities will even be more cut-off than before.”

Runners from the Right to Movement campaign have taken their message to races as far away as the San Francisco marathon. Last year, the group joined UNWRA in a relay from New York City to Washington DC, aimed at changing US policy on funding cuts.

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Despite its obvious objectives, the campaign has not been entirely trouble-free. It has, for example, faced objections from socially-conservative Palestinians concerned that running is not a suitable activity for women and girls. This was a hurdle that Diala sought to break one step at a time — literally — by starting training sessions indoors to avoid complaints. “Women running in the streets wasn’t culturally acceptable. When we first began, we used to be judged and had a lot of adverse comments thrown at us, so we worked a lot on creating a good running atmosphere for females.”

This entailed running off-road, where people weren’t around, as well as the indoor workouts. “It encouraged many people to join us until we were comfortable as a group to go running in the streets. In time, it became acceptable.”

Along with its political objectives, the running group has helped to bring about social change, including improved fitness for the women taking part. Running has changed their lives, and nobody is thinking about stopping.

“It wasn’t easy, and isn’t easy, but I can say now that I have three female leaders in the group. And they are all inspiring leaders encouraging more females to join and it’s so nice.”

The initiative has come to the attention of prominent figures such as Democratic representative Rashida Tlaib, British politician Jeremy Corbyn and American model Anwar Hadid.

The son of Nazareth-born Mohammad Hadid met with the founders of the Right to Movement campaign during a visit to Ramallah in December. An Instagram post shows Anwar Hadid with a campaign t-shirt and the caption that he “supports Right to Movement and believes that young people are the change makers of Palestine”.

Connecting with prominent personalities such as Tlaib and Hadid is important, believes Diala. “They show great interest in the story of Palestine because it’s coming directly from us Palestinian runners who are facing these harsh realities, not the media. Running is a universal activity, and anyone can relate to it because it’s not difficult to understand. We runners are experiencing it together, carrying the Palestinian flag.”

Running to restore freedom of movement is an objective that many people in the West may not fully appreciate. For the Palestinians, however, it is a struggle to restore a basic human right, and that should be something that everyone should value and support.

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