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Marathons and Media Bias in the West Bank

When the news broke last week that Israel had prevented Gazan runners from participating in the West Bank’s first marathon, my initial reaction was to wonder why Israel had done something so stupid. Granted, Gaza is an enemy quasi-state that routinely launches rockets at Israel, and most countries don’t let enemy nationals enter or transit their territory; hence Israel’s refusal to allow Gazans to do so (aside from humanitarian cases like the many Gazans treated in Israeli hospitals) is usually perfectly justified. But exceptions are routinely made for international sporting events; that’s why Israel rightly objects when its own athletes are barred from international tournaments in Arab countries. Hence this ban, which was reported worldwide, could only hurt Israel’s image.

But it turns out Israel was perfectly justified in barring the Gaza athletes–because the marathon’s Palestinian organizers had barred Israeli participants. Clearly, no country should be expected to facilitate an “international” event that bars its own athletes from participating. That this justification was absent from last week’s news reports thus speaks volumes about both the incompetence of Israel’s public relations and the biases of international reporting on Israel.

The Palestinians’ hypocrisy on the issue was hardly subtle. Samia al-Wazir, spokeswoman for the Palestinian Olympic Committee, protested the ban on Gaza athletes by declaring, “The Israelis should look at this purely as a sporting event. It has nothing to do with politics.” Yet Palestinian Olympic Committee member Itidal Abdul-Ghani subsequently told an Israeli paper that “Israelis weren’t welcome to join the marathon while their military occupies Palestinian lands.” Needless to say, it can’t be “purely a sporting event” where Gazan athletes are concerned but a political protest where Israeli athletes are concerned; it’s one or the other. And once the Palestinians chose to make it political by barring Israeli athletes, Israel was completely justified in returning the favor by barring Gazan athletes.

Yet instead of making this point, which any fair-minded person could understand, Israeli spokesmen simply repeated the usual platitudes: that Gaza is ruled by a terrorist organization, and Gazans are therefore permitted to enter or transit Israel “only in exceptional humanitarian cases.” As noted, that’s a perfectly valid argument in most cases–but not in the case of an international sporting event, and not when a much more compelling argument was available.

Israel’s incompetence, however, doesn’t excuse the international media’s decision to report only the ban on Gazans, and not the ban on Israelis. By any objective standard, the latter was actually more newsworthy. After all, Hamas-run Gaza is openly at war with Israel, but the Palestinian Authority is supposedly Israel’s “peace partner.” Shunning one’s “peace partner” is surely more noteworthy than shunning an enemy. Yet only the Israeli media deemed it worth mentioning.

Perhaps the problem was that reporting the ban on Israelis would have spoiled the neat “Israel as villain” plotline. After all, the race’s main sponsor was a Danish nonprofit. And it’s hard to paint Israel as the Grinch who stole the marathon from would-be runners when enlightened Europeans were complicit in the same crime–with far less justification.


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