An international marathon has become the latest focal point to threaten the delicate political balance between Israel and Palestine, with the International Olympic Committee and two American companies getting caught up in tensions regarding the route of the race in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Marathon is set to be staged on March 1, with a prize fund of close to $30,000 and a breathtaking backdrop of several sights with deep historical and religious significance.
However, much as organizers have tried to tout the event as a peaceful showcase of the ancient city, Palestinian government officials have taken action against what they believe to be a "serious breach" of international law.
The main point of contention is the route itself, part of which runs through Jerusalem's east sector, an enclave captured by Israel during the "Six Day War" of 1967 and subsequently annexed. While the Israeli government insists the region as part of its capital city, Palestinians and the inter national community regard it as occupied territory.
The layout of the course has prompted lawyers representing Palestinian government agencies to send letters threatening legal action and a boycott of two of the race sponsors – sportswear company New Balance, and the InterContinental Hotel Group. Meanwhile, the Palestine Olympic Committee has contacted both the IOC and track and field's international governing body to demand sanctions against Israel.
"All participants and sponsors of the International Jerusalem Winter Marathon [should] withdraw their sponsorship and participation or else become complicit in covering up Israel's grave human rights abuses in its occupation of the State of Palestine," read a statement from the Palestine Liberation Organization on Wednesday.
Jerusalem is an extraordinary place for reasons far beyond its spectacular architecture. For a start, it is unique in being regarded as a holy site by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Primarily for this reason, it is also a political powder keg.
Both Israel and Palestine lay claim to Jerusalem as their rightful capital city, and its status is the primary stumbling block preventing the establishment of two official states and the potential for lasting peace.
Chief among the concerns of the Palestinians is that the staging of an Israeli-hosted event that crosses into East Jerusalem will strengthen Israel's bid to establish the perception that Jerusalem is a unified, Jewish city.
"This has been Israel's strategy since 1967," said Ahmed Qurei, former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, the interim self-government authority set up to rule over the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip. "[The policy] has resulted in land confiscations and expulsions of Palestinians."
Most concerning, the dispute over the marathon comes amid threats from Muslim action group Hamas warning that actions perceived to be a snub to the Muslim population would lead to "a major conflict, not just in the media."
Jerusalem city officials, the Israeli government and race organizers have tried to distance themselves from the furor, which has been given scant attention in the Israeli media.
A spokesman for the Major of Jerusalem told the New York Times that "this is not politics, this is sport, this is culture," while the race website contained no mention of the dispute in its media section.
New Balance declined to comment on Wednesday, while a spokesman for the InterContinental Group did not returns calls by the time of publication.
Palestine's cause for legal action against the companies and Israel has been strengthened after it gained greater international recognition from the United Nations at a vote last November. While still not a fully-fledged nation with the same rights as full UN members, the move was seen as a major step towards the formal establishment of the Palestinian state.
The vote indicated a shift in international opinion towards Palestine, with 138 members including heavy support from the European Union voting in favor of the switch and only nine, including the United States, Canada and Israel, voting against.
Palestine's new status will give it enhanced rights to challenge Israel's actions in disputed areas such as East Jerusalem, and while there was no suggestions of the course being changed so close to the start of the race, the repercussions of the event could be felt several months down the line.
Race organizers told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday that nearly 20,000 runners from more than 50 countries signed up for the event, and insisted there were no restrictions on anyone who wished to enter.
"We welcome and encourage all peoples to run," said a spokesman. "This is a celebration of sport, nothing more."
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