By Jimmy Hutcheon and Chloe Rouveyrolles*
Yesterday, Palestinian swimmer Mary al Atrash, swam for the first time in the Rio Olympics, in the 50-meter freestyle. She finished third in her heat and finished in 28.76 seconds, beating her personal best of 29.91. That finish did not affect the broader ranking: Sadly, Mary finished 63rd of 91 athletes, and will not be taking part in the semi-finals, which feature only the 16 best swimmers.
Last month we interviewed Mary al Atrash, a 22-year-old swimmer from Beit Sahour in the West Bank who was part of the largest delegation Palestine has ever sent to the Olympic Games.
She told us about her difficulties to train in a swimming pool that does not match the Olympic standards, and explained that although she technically lives close to Jerusalem, where such swimming pools, exist, she could not go there to train.
After our story was published, a controversy started: Israeli authorities explained that Mary never applied for a permit to train in Jerusalem. Other media outlets declared that Olympic-sized swimming pools existed in the West Bank. We investigated this complex situation.
After COGAT – the Israeli Ministry of Defense organization coordinating civil affairs between Palestinians and Israelis in the Palestinian territories – published a statement saying Mary al Atrash never applied for a permit to train in Jerusalem, we contacted Mary and the organizations that supervise her training such as the Palestinian Swimming Federation and the Palestine Olympic Committee.
Indeed, it seems that Mary never applied for a permit, and neither did a lot of other Palestinian athletes. They explain this situation by emphasizing their movement restrictions. They say they can be stopped at any point while going from one place to another and therefore don’t feel safe moving from one city to another. They also mention that roads or checkpoints are sometimes closed which implies a chance of wasting time that they could use to train.
The Palestinian Swimming Federation stressed “the difficulties, that all the athletes face, to enter Jerusalem for training” and that “permits are for a limited time” and that athletes still have to go “through checkpoints” even if they have a permit to train in Jerusalem which makes their situation unstable and puts them at risk of wasting their training time.
To understand the difficult situation and the restrictions of movement for Mary al Atrash, here are options to reach Jerusalem, where she could find an Olympic-sized swimming pool to train, from Beit Sahour, where she lives.
She could go through Beit Jala, a village between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, there are 2 checkpoints to cross (one in Har Gilo and one through tunnels on Road 60).
She could also first go to Bethlehem and then, from this city, drive to Jerusalem, and she would still have one checkpoint to go through (nearby by the separation wall). The Rachel’s Tomb Checkpoint, also known as Checkpoint 300, reportedly sees thousands of people crossing daily. It is considered to be one of the busiest checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel.
Lastly she could travel straight from Beit Sahour to Jerusalem, where she would also have to cross one checkpoint, off the Road 60, on Road 398.
It should not be more than 15-minute long drive but then, it depends on how long you spend at the checkpoint (it can be several hours), where you also have to change public transportation, since no Palestinian plated car can enter Jerusalem.
Besides, there was a controversy regarding the absence of an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the West bank. The Jerusalem Post conducted an investigation and finally concluded that there are no 50-meter long swimming pools meeting the Olympic standards in the West Bank although there is an ongoing project to build one.
*Chloé Rouveyrolles is a Paris-born journalist covering Middle East affairs. She’s currently based between Israel and the Palestinian territories. You can follow her on Twitter@tweetingchloe.
*Jimmy Hutcheon is a French freelance journalist and videographer covering Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.