The Washington Post, March 31, 2016
By Hazem Balousha
MAGHAZI, Gaza Strip — Every morning as the sun rises and light begins to flood this coastal enclave, Inas Nofal is up, dressed and ready to go out for her daily run.
While this might not seem unusual for someone training for a competition, the sight of Nofal, 15, running up and down the streets of the refugee camp where she lives in loose fitting, modest looking running gear and a hijab, is singular.
She is Gaza’s only competitive female runner.
Since the militant Islamist movement Hamas took over the strip in 2007 and barred mixed groups of men and women in many public activities, female athletes have faced wide-ranging restrictions. Girls rarely participate in sports, and if they do it is behind closed doors.
A marathon scheduled to take place here in 2013 was cancelled by the United Nations because Hamas would not allow women to participate.
But Nofal’s challenges are not just as a woman. The young runner, who is one of four sisters, was scheduled to participate this coming Friday in a 10-kilometer race, part of the fourth annual Palestine Marathon, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
On Thursday, however, she was notified that Israel’s civil administration had denied her a permit to leave Gaza, along with more than 100 other runners.
The Israeli military authority responsible for implementing government policy in the West Bank and Gaza said on Facebook that the application permits for the runner had arrived late. It accused those applying for the permits of deliberately delaying the process for political reasons.
The human rights organization Gisha, which monitors movement for Palestinians, said in a statement that even if the requests had came in later than expected, Israel could have made some exceptions in the name of good sportsmanship.
Nofal, who started running nearly a year ago, is used to challenges. When she first started working out, it was in a closed stadium but after a few moths she was bored and decided to she wanted run in the streets.
At first she faced verbal abuse from people shocked to see a young woman exercising in public. But support from her family, particularly her father — who rides alongside her in his car — spurred her on. Now the taunts have turned to support and admiration.
Gazans are realizing this young runner is serious and talented.
“I started running in school, in my sports class. One of my teachers saw me and told my father, who supported me, then I found myself in this kind of sport,” Nofal told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “My family, and especially my father, have helped me to keep on going until I reached the point of being the only female runner in Gaza.”
Her father, Mohammed Nofal, said his support for his daughter is not even a question.
“I love my four daughters and I see the life through them. Inas has chosen to be a runner, so I am standing with her till the end,” he said.
Before Hamas took over the strip, female athletes in Gaza were viewed as pioneers. The runner Sanna Abubkheet was one of only three athletes — and the first and only woman — to represent Palestine at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Nofal is also hoping to compete, despite the obstacles she faces. Her actions have inspired other young women to join her in her training, albeit in the stadium for now.
“Inas is the best runner in Gaza at the moment,” said her coach, Sami Nateel, a former runner who has participated in many local and international competitions.
“She won the last running competition we had here, and she has ambition to continue,” he said, adding that Nofal is hoping to represent the Palestinian team at a meet in Russia in June.