What a Marathon Taught Me about Israel, Palestine, and the Right to Movement

As hundreds of red, green, white and black balloons representing the Palestinian flag floated into the sky amidst the cheers of 4,300 runners at the fourth annual Palestine marathon, my group and I knelt on the ground over wafers and plastic cups of grape juice, quietly taking communion. I briefly centered myself in prayer, reflecting on the journey that led me to Manger Square to run in the Right to Movement marathon alongside Palestinians and internationals of all ages in a shared journey of purpose.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and resident within the borders of each state.” The race course, which ran alongside the 25 foot-high Israeli separation wall, through the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps, and along Bethlehem’s main roads, is intended to demonstrate the restrictions Palestinians face in their daily movement. Journeying this route alongside Palestinian women pushing strollers, a shepherd herding his sheep across the road, participants in wheelchairs, and athletes all excited to be taking part  in this creative act of civil resistance emphasized to me the significance of this race and the community I had the opportunity to be part of.

The simple act of running, of placing one foot in front of the other with a purpose and destination in mind, took on new meaning as I ran beneath the shadow of an Israeli guard tower and under the arch to Aida Camp’s entrance, topped with the mold of a key to signify the homes Palestinians were driven from in 1948. Two to three generations later, families still possess these keys. This legacy of restriction of movement for an entire group of people, from their homes to their everyday morning commute to school and work, was prevalent throughout the race. “When I run, I feel like I can do anything,” Palestinian Rawan Bannoura said in the 2015 documentary Beyond the Wall. “Even though I’m restricted by a small area, it makes me feel free.”

To demonstrate that Palestinians do not have the continuous length of a marathon for their use without encountering a checkpoint, the separation wall, or an Israeli road within the Palestinian Territories which only Israeli citizens can drive down, the marathon route crosses the finish line at the halfway point and sends runners back out to repeat the course. “I believe it’s very important to run this marathon,” continued Rawan. “...this marathon, for us, is not only a marathon. It’s a way to send a message, and a very important message about our right to movement and that we don’t have that basic human right [to] move from one place to another without being checked, without being stopped and harassed.”

As I ran back out again, I was reminded of a passage I read in the book Whose Land? Whose Promise?, in which professor Gary Burge meets a young Palestinian Christian woman who described her first trip to the United States. While on a long bus ride through Indiana, “... it hit her: she had never gone so far in one direction in her life. Israel had restricted her freedom of movement so much that the geographical scope of her world was ‘less than a couple hours wide.’ She cried when she realized how expansive and free she felt that afternoon north of Indianapolis.”

I joined forces in the second half of the race with two Palestinian and British women, Fadwa and Rosie, and we resolved to finish the race together. As we motivated one another for each step of the final 13 miles, I experienced a sacred sense of community that reminded me of the incredible purpose behind this race and the immense honor it was to be part of it, cheered on by families leaning out of their windows to see us run by, and returning high fives to children who wanted to run alongside us and introduce themselves in English.

Being present in the story of this race was a contribution to a much larger narrative; one of the Palestinian people; of our collective human right of movement; of refugees today; of the power of civil resistance and nonviolence; of the holiness of standing up to injustice alongside the oppressed with a clear and resounding “no”.  Being part of such a story recognizes the shared belief within this community that we are contributing not only to changing the present conditions, but working towards a future in which the huge physical wall we faced together will one day come down; that more peaceful dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians will be facilitated; that future generations will experience a peace that was written for them through such collective actions as this race.

Crossing the finish line in front of the birthplace of Christ with my mission team members, internationals, and Palestinians to celebrate our shared journey that day was a sacred honor I will never forget, and a story I will tell for the rest of my life. May we each work towards dismantling the physical, emotional, and political walls we face in our own lives and collective narratives today, and may we stand in solidarity alongside those who face these walls and help tear them down. As fellow human beings, their pain is also our pain to address. This story is not over yet. 

-Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the nonprofit the United States Energy Association in Washington, DC. Photo of runners courtesy of Celia Riley.