The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has canceled the third international Gaza marathon, which was scheduled to take place on April 10, 2013. UNRWA reports that the marathon has been cancelled because Hamas refused to let women participate due to the ban on gender mixing. A written statement read: "UNRWA regrets to announce that it has cancelled the third Gaza marathon which was to be held on 10 April. This follows the decision by the authorities in Gaza not to allow women to participate."
The Hamas government in Gaza, for its part, denied banning the participation of women. In a statement it issued, it said that it had agreed to hold the marathon "under restrictions related to the traditions and customs of the Palestinian people." However, articles by columnists close to Hamas indicate that the movement had indeed objected to the participation of women in the marathon. These columnists justified Hamas's move and claimed that the marathon contravened the Islamic faith and its values. Other elements, mainly in the Palestinian Authority (PA), criticized Hamas over the affair, claiming that it was working to exclude women and "Islamize" society in the Gaza Strip. There was even some criticism of Hamas inside the Gaza Strip itself.
It should be noted that women did participate in the two previous Gaza marathons organized by UNRWA.
2011 Gaza marathon (left) and 2012 Gaza marathon (right)
Columnists Close To Hamas: We Must Defend Islamic Tradition And Customs
Hamas associates defended the movement's ban on the participation of women in the marathon. Dr. 'Issam Shawir, a columnist for the daily Filastin, which is close to Hamas, wrote: "In Turkey, women were forbidden from wearing Islamic garb for many generations; in France they have been forbidden from wearing a hijab at the university or walking the streets in a niqab; even in Tunisia – an Arab and Muslim country – during the reign of deposed [president] Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Muslim women were subjected to the strictest of restrictions, and there are many examples of this. [In all these cases,] no one protested over the harming of 'UN values' [individual liberty and freedom of religion], because the victims were obedient Muslim women. Yet today people speak in the name of UN 'values' and 'principles' just because [the Hamas] government is banning activity that contravenes the values of this country. We live in Gaza, not in France or bin Ali's Tunisia. The UN and its spokesmen must consider the circumstances of the country in which they operate... Those who believe that adhering to a modest Islamic dress code is backwards are themselves a source of backwardness, reactionary [behavior], and deviation from the religion, and they are the cause of the disasters that befall the Muslims."
The Marathon Is Contrary To Islam
Jamal Abu Rida, a columnist for a website close to Hamas, wrote: "The Palestinian government led by Isma'il Haniya did well when it decided to prevent Palestinian women from participating in the third Gaza marathon... The Palestinian government's decision satisfied Palestinian public opinion because it is unreasonable for the Palestinian government to allow UNRWA, or any other organization operating in the Gaza Strip, to organize activities of this sort, which could lead to gender mixing that has extremely negative consequences." Abu Rida added that gender mixing was one of the reasons Fatah had lost the 2006 elections, since the public was tired of moral corruption. He wrote further that Hamas's decision to bar women from participating heralded "new decisions meant to end UNRWA's interference in the lives of the Palestinians... [UNRWA] has become a state within a state, which employs a policy of temptation and threats to influence people's ideology."
Another columnist close to Hamas, Mustafa Al-Sawwaf, wrote that Palestinian society has divine rules that must not be broken. According to him, the marathon was banned since it is contrary to Islam, and the government must preserve the people's piety and society's morality, customs, and traditions. He called on UNRWA to cease its attempts to impose its will under the pretext that the marathon would increase solidarity with the Palestinian people. He praised the "Palestinian government" for its steadfast position and called on it to continue defending the Palestinian values, tradition and customs.
2011 Gaza marathon
Criticism In The PA: Hamas Is Undermining Women's Status
Others harshly criticized Hamas's position. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said: "Hamas's move harms the status of the Palestinian woman and her national and social role, as well as her full right to equality according to the basic laws and the traditions of our people, which has always aspired to consolidate the status of women and to prevent their exclusion and marginalization." According to him, "cancelling the marathon squandered an important opportunity to shed light on the suffering of our people in the Gaza Strip."
Fatah described Hamas's decision as "racist discrimination by Hamas against Palestinian women, and an offense comparable to violence against them and a violation of their rights."
The Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights did not directly criticize Hamas or UNRWA but expressed sorrow over the cancellation of the marathon, "which was meant to increase solidarity with the people of Gaza and attract activists and sympathizers from abroad to visit the city." The center called on the Hamas government to operate only in accordance with the law, which states that everyone is equal and bans discrimination based on race, religion, color, gender, or political orientation.
Columnists: The Islamic Emirate In Gaza Is a Duplicate Of The Taliban
Columnist Shaker Farid Hassan wrote on a website close to the PLO: "Every day we discover more characteristics of the Islamic emirate in Gaza, which is a duplicate of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in its activity, ideology, methods, and record. Since its rise to power in Gaza, Hamas has increased its stranglehold, control, and sovereignty over [the Strip], utilizing every means at its disposal and all forms of intimidation. This is the behavior of a mob: excluding [women] and Islamizing society... by dictating an Islamic agenda; adopting a lifestyle and behaviors such as Islamic garb, beards, veils, and modesty; increasing religious studies at schools in order to brainwash young pupils; and using mosque pulpits to incite against other Palestinian factions and spread Hamas's ideology."
Mustafa Ibrahim, a columnist for the Palestinian news agency Ma'an, claimed that Hamas's actions on the ground contradict promises made by its leaders to refrain from imposing values or religious practices and from violating individual or collective liberties. He complained that the Hamas police often harasses people and directly interferes with their lives, and listed attempts by Hamas to impose its values on society, such as its decision to force female lawyers to wear a robe and a veil, which is still valid even though Hamas ostensibly retracted it; the Gaza Waqf's "modesty campaign" in schools, which requires girls to wear robes; and the Al-Aqsa university's decision to force female students to wear robes.
Criticism Inside Gaza
Criticism of Hamas's decision was also heard from figures inside Gaza itself, who claimed that the movement had appointed itself the guardian of the public. Rawya Al-Shawa, an impendent PLC member from Gaza, said: "There is no justification for the Hamas government to prevent girls from [taking part in] sporting events or in the third marathon, after they had participated in the two previous ones." According to her, Hamas forces itself on the public even though not all Gazans are Hamas supporters: "There is a public here with Islamic roots that does not belong to Hamas and completely objects to [others] determining its fate and lifestyle by force and without supervision... You [Hamas] are a resistance movement that works for liberation and independence, [but] we see no justification for your imposing your guardianship over us. We are a conservative society that adheres to all traditions, and will determine when, where, and how to behave. Isn't the siege and the tyranny of the occupation enough for us?"
Pupils in UNRWA schools in Gaza also expressed disappointment and anger over the marathon cancellation. 13-year-old Noura Balboul said: "Why are they preventing girls from participating when it is known that they swim in the ocean alongside boys? What is the difference?" A 16-year-old boy said: "The marathon is a celebration that expresses freedom and is meant to prove that we in Gaza are a cultured people that deserves to live just like any other."
 Unrwa.org, March 5, 2013.
 Al-Ayyam (PA), March 6, 2013.
 Unrwa.org, accessed March 18, 2013.
 Felesteen.ps, March 6, 2013.
 Felesteen.ps, March 7, 2013.
 Paltimes.net, March 5, 2013.
 Paltoday.ps, May 5, 2011.
 Al-Hayat (London), March 7, 2013.
 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), March 6, 2013.
 Amad.ps, March 6, 2013.
 Maannews.net, March 5, 2013.
 Al-Ayyam (PA), March 6, 2013.
 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), March 6, 2013.