U.N. agency cancels Gaza marathon

JERUSALEM -- A U.N aid agency canceled the Gaza marathon on Tuesday after the Palestinian territory's militant Hamas rulers banned women from participating in the annual sporting event.

UNWRA, which assists Palestinian refugees and also sponsors and organizes the event, announced that plans for the race next month have been scrapped because of the Hamas demand that women be barred.

A statement from agency said that "this disappointing decision follows discussions with the authorities in Gaza who have insisted that no women should participate" in the marathon.

The militant Islamic group Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, when it ousted the rival Palestinian Fatah movement in bloody street battles in the coastal strip. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Hamas has since cracked down on behavior it deems contrary to its strict interpretation of Islam. It has already banned women from riding on the backs of motorbikes and smoking water pipes, and has barred men from working in hair salons -- along with other dictates on social activities it frowns upon. However, the group has been unsuccessful in imposing many of the decrees.

Taher Nunu, a spokesman for the Gaza government, said Hamas regretted the cancellation of the marathon but that it had told the U.N agency that local norms must be respected.

"We emphasize that the government had informed UNRWA about its approval to organize this event ... maintaining certain matters related to the customs and traditions of the Palestinian people," Nunu said.

The race, scheduled for April 10, would have been the third time the marathon was held in Gaza.

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