JERUSALEM – Israel's high court on Tuesday upheld a decision to prevent an Olympic runner from leaving the Gaza Strip to participate in a marathon, highlighting Israel's tight restrictions on travel in and out of the Hamas-ruled territory.
Nader Masri, who participated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, had hoped to run in a marathon in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Friday, but his request to leave Gaza was rejected by Israel's defense minister.
On Tuesday, Israel's Supreme Court upheld the travel ban, saying it could not interfere in the minister's policy decisions.
The case 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 34-year-old runner said he was disappointed.
"The ban no doubt limits my ability to challenge other champions from elsewhere," Masri said in a phone interview. 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.
The Palestinian Olympic Committee in the West Bank made such a request on behalf of Masri, said the Israeli rights group Gisha, which handled the runner's Supreme Court appeal.
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 also said too many people -- a total of 30 -- had applied to accompany Masri.
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.