Twelve kilometers and a high cement wall separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem. But sports transcends boundaries and hundreds of competitors from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Italy have run in a mini-marathon between the two biblical cities.
“I feel tired because it is very hot today, But I am happy,” says Valentina, a runner from Italy, as she reached Jerusalem’s Old City walls under the noon sun.
This Bethlehem-Jerusalem Peace Run began seven years ago. Once, Israelis were not allowed into the Palestinian areas due to security concerns. But this year saw progress.
“For the first time Israeli Jewish people went inside Bethlehem and joined the Palestinian and Italian runners and ran together through the gate and it was beautiful,” said Capt. Adam Avidan, head of foreign relations for Israel’s Civil Administration. “We are very, very happy to see this kind of collaboration. We see this sport, the faith, this pilgrimage as a bridge for peace.”
Palestinian gunners and Israeli soldiers once exchanged deadly fire over the valley separating the outskirts of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Houses in Israeli Ian Cohen’s neighborhood of Gilo were severely damaged by the gunfire during the height of the unrest in 2002. Cohen said he was eager but a bit apprehensive about crossing into the Palestinian areas to run for the first time.
“For me it was a fascinating experience going over to the Palestinian side and being accompanied and escorted and protected by elite Palestinian police, and being watched over by at least four others running alongside,” Cohen said during a break in the race. “They did everything they could to protect us. It felt fine.”
In the previous six mini-marathons, Israeli runners would only join the race once the group passed through the security barrier from Bethlehem.
This year, Cohen admitted, the full participation of the dozen or so Israeli runners was mainly “symbolic”, as most Israelis remain fearful of visiting the Palestinian-controlled city of Bethlehem.
The event is named after John Paul II because the late pope saw sports as a tool to transcend differences and spur dialogue. Joining the Israelis and Palestinians were hundreds of Italian Catholic pilgrims.
Dubbed the Jon Paul II Games 2010, the participants were also scheduled to inaugurate the Gospel Trail, a bicycle path that meanders across the Galilee in northern Israel, where Jesus once preached.
The sporting events are a joint initiative led by the official Vatican pilgrimage organization Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, in cooperation with the Italian Olympic Committee and the Israeli and Palestinian tourism ministries. Father Ibrahim Fatters, the Catholic Church parish priest of Jerusalem, joined in the run wearing his traditional Franciscan robe. He later joined in a pick up volleyball game with Israeli army officers, runners and Italian pilgrims.
“It is very nice to see the Palestinians and the Israelis together,” Fatters said. “The first time we do this game together you can’t distinguish between the Palestinians, the Israelis and Italians and you see how the people are happy.”
The success of a mini-marathon with Israeli, Palestinian and foreign competitors running side by side without any unrest is a sign of the positive atmosphere prevalent in the region now.
While peace talks have not yet resumed between the Israeli and the Palestinians, with US mediation they are closer than they have been for over a year.
“It has a lofty objective – we want there to be peace among the nations, between Palestinians and Israelis and it’s very good,” said Lillian Ja’ar, a Palestinian runner. “There’s a peaceful side to sporting events.”
Israeli tourism officials hope the encounter will promote pilgrimage to the Holy Land and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Seven years ago when this all started we were in the middle of the Intifada [Palestinian uprising] when we were so afraid and scared,” said Raphael Ben-Hur, Deputy Director General of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. “Now we changed the history. We changed the situation and it is fantastic.”
“We believe that pilgrims are a bridge for peace,” Ben-Hur said. “People make reality and they can change reality. And we are doing it. We are going to change the reality. Pilgrims can change the reality in the Middle East.”