GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — This territory was made for such a race, some 26 miles from top to bottom.
More than 1,000 runners took part Thursday in the Gaza Strip's first marathon — or, at least covered part of the course — offering a lighter moment in a place often torn by violence and war.
"There is the New York Marathon, the London Marathon, the Tel Aviv Marathon, and now there is also the Gaza Marathon," said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. body that organized the event.
About 50 runners left the starting line at dawn, setting out on a course that went from the northern border town of Beit Hanoun near Israel, cut to the Mediterranean shore and dashed to Gaza's southernmost tip on the Egyptian border.
Just nine runners — Palestinian athletes training for next year's Olympics and international aid workers — ran the full course.
The other participants ran shorter distances, with about 150 women walking six miles of the route and more than 1,000 schoolchildren in brightly colored T-shirts running in shorter relays of a half mile to two miles. Armed security men from the governing Hamas militant group watched from the sidelines.
The first to cross the finish line was Nader al-Masri, a 31-year-old Palestinian who ran in the 5,000 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is training for the 2012 London Games. He finished in 2 hours, 47 minutes, 47 seconds — short of his goal of 2½ hours.
"This is a very happy day for me because it is the first-ever marathon in Gaza," al-Masri said. "It is a day of joy."
The event was organized as a fundraiser by UNRWA, the U.N. group that aids Palestinian refugees, and brought about $1 million from international donors to fund summer camps for Gazan children.
For the last five years, the United Nations has run such camps for about 250,000 children across the Gaza Strip. The swimming, painting, acting and dancing offer some relief from the stresses of life in the Palestinian territory.
For the past four years, Gaza has been governed by Hamas, an Iranian-backed Islamic group that opposes peace with Israel. In 2009, Israel waged a three-week military offensive in response to months of heavy rocket fire from Gaza. Many parts of Gaza still bear scars of the fighting. This week, Hamas agreed to form a unity government with the rival Fatah movement.
In recent summers, rival day camps by the U.N. and Hamas have competed for the hearts of Gaza's youth — the roughly 700,000 children under 15 who make up nearly half the territory's population.
Hamas summer camps teach an anti-Israeli doctrine and military-style marching, along with horseback riding, swimming and Islam. Last summer, masked men vandalized a U.N. summer camp, tying up guards and slashing an inflatable pool, one of a few such incidents.
UNRWA media adviser Adnan Abu Hassna in Gaza said the money that was raised would help the U.N. significantly increase its summer activities for Gaza's children. The aim is to prevent them from falling into the path of militancy.
Last summer, campers broke two Guinness Records: one for the most basketballs dribbled at the same time, and the other for the most kites flown simultaneously.
"When given the opportunity, the children of Gaza can be the best in the world," Hassna said.
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