Olympic athlete wins Gaza's first-ever marathon

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories - More than 1,400 Palestinians were up before dawn on Thursday to take part in the Gaza Strip's first-ever marathon, running the entire length of the coastal enclave.

As the sun rose, around 50 runners gathered at the start line at the entrance to Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip, bouncing nervously as they waited for the starting whistle.

Just nine people, seven of them Gazans, signed up to run the full 42-kilometre (26-mile) stretch that ends at the southern city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.

Most of the other competitors were school children in brightly-coloured T-shirts, who ran short stretches of the race in a relay format, with more than 1,200 taking part through the morning, each one covering between one and four kilometres.

Under a blazing sun, the runners pounded along the largely-flat route running down the Mediterranean coast, passing battered towns and ramshackle villages, as cars and donkey carts passed them, the drivers peering curiously at the rare sight of people running for recreation.

Many of the children were dressed in jeans, and some were even running barefoot despite the hot tarmac underfoot.

"The people find it strange - if they see someone running, they think they are crazy," remarked one of the spectators.

"Usually Palestinians only run when there are air strikes or when they are frightened."

Half-way through, another six runners began the 21 kilometre (13 mile) half marathon and towards the end, 150 runners from the Gaza Athletics Federation and this AFP journalist joined in for the last eight kilometre (five mile) stretch.

Organised by UNRWA, the runners have collectively raised more than $1 million (672,000 euros) in sponsorship which will go towards the Palestinian refugee agency's Summer Games programme held every year in the Hamas-run territory, spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP.

There were no surprises when it came to the winner - 31-year-old Nader al-Masri from the northern town of Beit Hanun, an Olympic athlete who was running his first marathon, and who completed it in 2:42:47.

"I'm very happy, this is the first time we've had a marathon here - it has never happened before in Palestine," he told AFP at the finish line where more than a thousand people, most of them children, had gathered to celebrate the event.

"It's a great joy for the kids. We need the culture of running for kids here in Gaza because it gives individuals a sense of power," said Masri, who ran the 5,000 metres at the 2008 Olympics and is hoping to enter the 2012 Games in London.

Just two international participants were running the full stretch: Frenchman Sebastien Trives, who is deputy director of UNRWA's Gaza operations, and his colleague Gemma Connell, an Australian who organised the event.

Both are first-time marathon runners.

"This is a very important day for Gaza. It is unique to have such an event here," Trives told AFP before starting. "It's a message for freedom."

The Hamas-run security forces provided security for the entire event, which comes just three weeks after the kidnap and murder of Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni by radical Islamist militants.

"We've been working with the local authorities to make sure the route is secure," Gunness said. "They are providing full security all along the route."

In addition to security concerns, organisers had to consider the sensitivities of male and female athletes running side-by-side.

Last year, masked gunmen set fire to two UN summer camps, apparently angered by the fact that girls and boys were mingling freely.