- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

DEIR EL BALAKH, Gaza Strip — Sanaa Abu Bkheit will not contend for a medal when she becomes the first female Gaza Strip resident to compete in the Olympics this month, but for millions of Palestinians, her mere participation in the games answers their aspiration to join the family of nations.

“Sports is a means of peace and love. Everyone will be united watching the games,” said the 19-year-old runner who trains on dirt paths in donated shoes. “I want to take the message that the Palestinians are a people of peace.”

About 3 years into their uprising against Israel, the participation of Miss Abu Bkheit and a swimmer from East Jerusalem in the Olympics symbolizes, for Palestinians, a break from the isolation of a suffocating conflict.

Athens will be the third Olympic Games to include a Palestinian delegation. In the wake of the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accords in the 1990s, the Palestinians joined the Olympic federation in 1993 and attended their first Olympics in Atlanta eight years ago. The 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, were held at the climax of diplomatic efforts to reach a final settlement creating a sovereign Palestinian state.

The current uprising erupted just a few weeks after the close of those games. Ever since, Palestinians have found themselves physically isolated by military blockades and have felt abandoned diplomatically by the international community.

“Four years ago, there was more optimism. … Things are completely different now,” said Muammar Bississo, an adviser to the Palestinian Olympic Committee.

“The Palestinian presence in the Olympics is declaring that the Palestinian people are a sovereign nation under occupation. This is our purpose,” he said.

If the world remembers Miss Abu Bkheit’s name after the Athens Games, it probably won’t be for her performance in the 800 meters. She would have to shave many seconds off her best time to compete for a medal.

More likely, the impression she leaves will be of her disarming smile and the tenacious optimism that has helped her overcome the lack of suitable training facilities.

With no track to be found in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, Miss Abu Bkheit instead trains on treacherous dirt paths that encircle greenhouses and one-floor dwellings in the fields near her hometown of Deir al Balakh.

Her only pair of running shoes were donated by foreigners because the family of six children can’t afford sneakers.

“There’s no substitute for a track. You’ll have to forgive us,” said Samir Al Habaheen, the coach who has overseen Miss Abu Bkheit’s training for the past two years.

“If Sanaa had good facilities, she would be able to improve her time and beat the records of Asia and the Middle East. She would be able to qualify for world competitions.”

Though no Palestinian athlete has ever qualified for the games, the International Olympic Committee allows the Palestinians to bring two athletes to the games.

In addition to Miss Abu Bkheit, 17-year-old swimmer Raad Aweisat from East Jerusalem will travel to Athens to compete in the 100-meter butterfly.

Mr. Aweisat also has been hampered by subpar training facilities, but Miss Abu Bkheit had to overcome an additional hurdle to make it to the Olympics. In the religiously traditional Gaza Strip, the sight of a young girl jogging in a sweat suit is enough to stir objections.

“It’s difficult for people to absorb. They would say, ‘How come a girl runs in the streets?’ I never replied. I just kept running,” she said. “Now people say, ‘You will bring us honor in the Olympics.’ ”

In Atlanta and Sydney, Israeli Olympians greeted their Palestinian counterparts with suggestions for arranging exhibition matches, but none has been organized.

“Sports has achieved peace in many countries, but not in the Israeli-Palestinian case. It may be impossible, given the situation that we’re in now,” Mr. Bississo said. “When Palestine is liberated and there is a state, there is no problem to play with them.”

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