Running is resistance for Palestinians under Israeli occupation

Running is resistance for Palestinians under Israeli occupation
Ten years ago, the Right to Movement campaign organised the first Palestine marathon in Bethlehem to bring runners together. Today, it is a space of Palestinian unity and resistance, write Jalal Abukhater and George Zeidan.
6 min read
Participants run through Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank during the 6th International Palestine Marathon on 23 March 2018. [Getty]

Ten years ago, a group of Danish and Palestinian activists started a campaign to illustrate the reality of life under Israeli apartheid through long distance running; they called it Right to Movement (RTM).

The campaign started in Bethlehem as a grassroots initiative aiming to organise the first marathon in Palestine. The name came to us upon realising there were no 42 km contiguous routes in Area A of Bethlehem city – the area where the Palestinians would have some sort of sovereignty to organise this activity. Consequently, runners would have to repeat the same 10.5 km segment four times to complete a full distance marathon.

Movement restrictions remain one of the biggest obstacles imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli occupation. Palestinians deal with all sorts of checkpoints, walls, and road closures. Most of the checkpoints impose movement restrictions on Palestinians as they move internally throughout the West Bank.

Moving between Ramallah and Jerusalem – an 8 km trip – may take up to 1.5 hours each way, spent in chaotic queues, left at the whim of some 19-year-old Israeli soldier. Checkpoints have become an outrageous part of our daily lives and a major source of stress and uncertainty that haunts us daily.

"Movement restrictions remain one of the biggest obstacles imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli occupation"

As a result, our marathon route became a symbol of Palestinian restricted movement due to the infamous Israeli checkpoints, illegal settlements, as well as the towering Apartheid Wall encircling our cities. It is the same route we use in our everyday life and simply illustrates the reality of life here.

As a by-product of the marathon, Right to Movement started several community groups of runners in different cities to prepare runners and motivate people to join the marathon. Importantly, the groups became a safe, empowering space for Palestinian women to do sports in the streets in equal numbers to men

Our groups thus offered a space where different identities met, often for the first time, and mixed in a natural way that wouldn’t have been possible if the Israeli regime had succeeded in fragmenting Palestinian society between the river and the sea.

Today, RTM has five active groups across different cities located in Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem. Over the past decade, these groups have evolved to become a source of social and political mobilisation within their communities.

One of the major challenges facing Palestinian runners across the West Bank is identifying safe and appropriate routes for long distance training. The marathon route in Bethlehem symbolises the same restricted movement all across the Occupied West Bank. Runners resort to identifying short segments with lots of repetition to train – not ideal for any long-distance runner, if you’re wondering.

Many of the West Bank cities, usually marked as Area A of the West Bank, are overpopulated and overcrowded with buildings and cars.

The largest chunks of the West Bank – those areas lying in the so-called Area B & C amounting to roughly 80% of the West Bank – are not safe for runners as Israeli settlers and occupation military continue to target Palestinians including runners, hikers, and climbers on a constant and well-documented basis.

Even in occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinian runners face obstacles and violence whenever we proclaim our Palestinian identity through sport.

In 2021, Israeli forces attacked Palestinian runners showing solidarity with people facing forced evictions and ethnic cleansing in the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. This form of violence is the kind of political persecution we want to highlight, and end.

Movement restrictions in the West Bank and violence in Jerusalem are an aspect of Israeli policies strangling Palestinian life under occupation. In Gaza, for example, an ongoing blockade of 15+ years prevents Palestinian movement even in the most urgent and humanitarian cases such as cancer treatments.

These restrictions amount to Israel's total control of who gets in and out of the occupied Palestinian Territories. Us Palestinians have no control over any borders, nor do we have any airports or functioning seaports to facilitate people’s travel.

This means that Palestinians may be banned from travel to other marathons abroad, all left to the whim of an Israeli order. Internationals wishing to participate in the Palestine marathon may also be denied entry via Israeli border control simply for their intention to visit the occupied West Bank.

"Right to Movement has transformed into a far more profound symbol of Palestinian unity and resistance to Israeli occupation than originally anticipated"

This leads us to one of the most important reasons why we believe in the Right to Movement: through our running communities found all over Palestine, we seek to bring people together by all possible means.

We tend to organise activities such as hikes or retreats, taking into account the locations most  accessible for those who wish to participate – which means the West Bank only. The Israeli “permit regime” prevents us from bringing people together in Jerusalem, Gaza, or the Galilee for example. Other times, rampant settler violence forces us to reconsider certain hiking routes in the occupied West Bank.

Despite all this, we do our best to get all our runners to override Israeli restrictions. Through these efforts, we advocate one of our central mission statements to end the fragmentation of our people and resist the apartheid bureaucracy that forces us apart.


The campaign now celebrates its 10th anniversary since it began in Bethlehem. Right to Movement has transformed into a far more profound symbol of Palestinian unity and resistance to Israeli occupation than originally anticipated. We are committed to creating a unified culture of acceptance and empowerment for women in sports.

Today, Right to Movement continues to strengthen our community of runners and bring Palestinians together, sharing the determination to run despite the occupation’s noose-like grip in our daily lives.

Ten years after we started our campaign, we are more relevant than ever.

Jalal Abukhater is a Palestinian writer based in Jerusalem. He holds an MA(Hons) in International Relations and Politics from the University of Dundee. Follow him on Twitter: @JalalAK_jojo

George Zeidan is a co-founder of Right to Movement Palestine, an initiative to illustrate the reality of Palestinian life through sports. A Fulbright awardee with a master’s degree from the Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, he is a program manager for an international humanitarian organisation and grew up in Jerusalem’s Old City. Follow him on Twitter: @gjzeidan

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