Israel refuses to let runner leave Gaza for marathon

Nader Masri in training in Gaza. Picture: AP
Nader Masri in training in Gaza. Picture: AP
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Israel’s high court has upheld a decision to prevent an Olympic runner from leaving the Gaza Strip to participate in a marathon, highlighting Israel’s tight restrictions on travel in and out of the Hamas-ruled territory.

Nader Masri – who participated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – had hoped to run in a marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday, but his request to leave Gaza was rejected by Israel’s defence minister. Israel’s Supreme Court yesterday upheld the travel ban, saying it could not interfere in the minister’s policy decisions.

The case underscored Israel’s restrictions on Gaza, which human rights activists have argued amount to collective punishment and are often arbitrary.

They claim the travel ban, preventing Gaza residents from leaving the area through Israel, is part of an Israeli attempt to sever ties between Gaza and the West Bank, territories that lie on opposite ends of Israel and are sought by the Palestinians for a future state, along with east ­Jerusalem.

Israel and Egypt – Gaza’s other neighbour – have severely limited access to Gaza since the territory was seized by the Islamic militant group Hamas in 2007.

Israel considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, a terrorist group.

Mr Masri, 34, said he was disappointed by the decision.

“The ban no doubt limits my ability to challenge other champions from elsewhere,” he said.

He added that he trains daily in the streets and three times a week in a local gym.

Ostensibly, Mr Masri should have stood a good chance of getting the exit permit, even under Israel’s stringent criteria.

Those permitted to leave Gaza, at least in principle, include members of the Palestinian Olympic team and the Palestinian soccer team, according to guidelines published in 2011 by the branch of Israel’s military which deals with Gaza.

According to that list, exceptions are also made for Gaza residents seeking to attend events in the West Bank sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, which is the self-rule government of President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of Hamas’ rival, Fatah.

The Palestinian Olympic Committee in the West Bank made such a request on behalf of Mr Masri.

Major Guy Inbar, an Israeli ­defence force official, said that Mr Masri’s request was denied because it “does not meet the rules for exceptions for sports events”.

Major Inbar claimed the Bethlehem marathon, sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, “has political overtones”, but did not elaborate further.

He also said too many people – a total of 30 – had applied to accompany Mr Masri.

Eitan Diamond, head of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, said underlying Israel’s policy is an attempt to “create a divide between the West Bank and Gaza, to remove Gaza from the consciousness of the Israeli public, to push Gaza away”.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to control access by air, land and sea.

Much of the international community considers the lands captured in 1967 as a single territorial unit; Israel claims that Gaza is no longer occupied.