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Israel bars Palestinian Olympian from leaving Gaza

AP - Sports

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israel has barred 30 runners, including an Olympic athlete, from leaving the Gaza Strip to participate in a marathon later this week, highlighting Israel's tight restrictions on travel in and out of the Hamas-ruled territory, Palestinian officials said Tuesday.

In the case of the Olympic runner, Nader Masri, the travel ban was upheld Tuesday by Israel's Supreme Court. Masri, 34, participated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Separately, 36 young musicians requested to leave Gaza for a weeklong music competition in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, but were also denied permission, organizers said. An Israeli defense official said a final decision has not been made. The competition begins Wednesday.

The cases underscored Israel's restrictions on Gaza, which human rights activists argue amount to collective punishment and are often arbitrary. They say the travel ban is part of an Israeli attempt to sever ties between Gaza and the West Bank, territories that lie on opposite ends of Israel and are sought by the Palestinians for a future state, along with east Jerusalem.

Israel and Gaza's other neighbor, Egypt, have severely limited access to Gaza since the territory was seized by the Islamic militant Hamas in 2007. Virtually all exports from Gaza are banned and most of Gaza's 1.7 million people cannot travel abroad. Israel considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks, a terrorist group.

The Palestinian Olympic Committee said it had asked Israel for permits for the 30 runners to leave Gaza so they could attend the second annual international marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday.

Itidal al-Mugrabi, a senior official in the committee, said all requests were denied last month. She said the Bethlehem event, which will also include shorter races, was expected to draw some 700 runners from Europe in addition to local athletes.

After being denied a permit, Masri approached the Israeli rights group Gisha, which appealed to Israel's Supreme Court.

The judges ruled Tuesday that they could not intervene in the defense minister's policy considerations, but suggested the military consider more exemptions from the travel ban.

Masri said he was disappointed.

''The ban no doubt limits my ability to challenge other champions from elsewhere,'' Masri said. He said he trains daily in the streets and three times a week in a local gym.

Ostensibly, Masri should have stood a good chance of getting the exit permit even under Israel's stringent criteria.

Those permitted to leave Gaza, at least in principle, include members of the Palestinian Olympic team and the Palestinian soccer team, according to guidelines published in 2011 by the branch of Israel's military dealing with implementing the policy toward Gaza.

According to that list, exceptions are also made for Gaza residents seeking to attend events in the West Bank sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government of Hamas' political rival, President Mahmoud Abbas.

Maj. Guy Inbar, an Israeli defense official, said Masri's request was denied because it ''does not meet the rules for exceptions for sports events.''

Inbar said the Bethlehem marathon sponsored by the Palestinian Authority ''has political overtones,'' but did not elaborate. He initially said that others who applied for permits were support staff, but then said he needed to check that information.

Eitan Diamond, the head of Gisha, said underlying Israel's policy is an attempt to ''create a divide between the West Bank and Gaza, to remove Gaza from the consciousness of the Israeli public, to push Gaza away.''

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to control access by air, land and sea.

Much of the international community considers the lands captured in 1967 as a single territorial unit, in contrast to Israel's claim that Gaza is no longer occupied.

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Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from the West Bank.

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