Palestinians mourn Israeli mentor


Palestinian actors react during a vigil in honor of Israeli Palestinian actor, director, filmmaker and political activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was shot dead in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin on Monday, Tuesday, April 5, 2011. (Mohammed Ballas/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
April 5, 2011

— A black flag hung Tuesday over the Freedom Theater in the Jenin refugee camp, where tearful young Palestinians mourned the sudden death of their Israeli teacher, a prominent actor and director slain a day earlier by a masked gunman in a nearby alley.

Juliano Mer Khamis, the son of a Jewish mother and Arab father, was the founding director of the youth theater, a project he saw as a mission to bring cultural revival to a community scarred by years of violence and occupation.

A well-known film and stage actor in Israel who lived and worked with the Palestinians, Mer Khamis, 52, seemed to transcend the chasm separating the two societies, and his death left his students crushed.

In a darkened theater hall, young men and women sobbed as images of their mentor at work were projected on a large screen to the strains of a mournful Palestinian song.

“Why?” one girl wailed. “We also have dreams. We can’t go on without him. Was it too much for us to have one good person?”

Mer Khamis, remembered here as a passionate and charismatic figure, was the driving force behind the theater, established in 2006 as a creative alternative for youngsters in the Jenin camp, home to Palestinians whose families were displaced in the war that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948. The project was a successor to a children’s theater group set up in the late 1980s by Mer Khamis’s mother, Arna, who sought to remedy the hardship of camp life with therapeutic drama. Before the founding of Freedom Theater, the Jenin camp had been a battleground for local militants confronting Israeli troops.

Offering an acting school, stage productions, and workshops in filmmaking, photography and creative writing, the theater presented a cultural challenge to a conservative society that had turned inward during the years of violent conflict.

Mer Khamis, who described conditions in the camp as a “ghetto culture” created during years of Israeli-imposed movement restrictions that isolated Jenin, took it upon himself to free the minds of the younger generation as a prelude to national liberation of the Palestinians, his associates said.

The idea, said Samia Steiti, program manager at the theater, was to promote “cultural resistance, with words and pictures.”

“Jail is a state of mind,” says a message written on a wall of a theater office. “Free your mind to liberate Palestine.”

Plays staged by the theater, such as a version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or a recent adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” prodded audiences to think critically about Palestinian society and politics. Coeducational classes drew fire from religious conservatives who objected to mingling of young men and women, and there were phone threats, two arson attempts and harassment on the street, said Nabil al-Rai, the director of the acting school.

No group has asserted responsibility for killing Mer Khamis, and although there has been at least one reported arrest of a suspect by the Palestinian security forces, no explanation has emerged for the slaying.

“Maybe his words killed him,” Rai said.

Iyad Hourani, an acting student, said Mer Khamis had taught him a prescient lesson. “He said that a person with a gun but without culture and an education will kill his friend before his enemy,” he recalled.

Zakaria Zubeidi, a former militant leader in the camp who is the theater’s unofficial protector, said at a news conference Tuesday that the killing bore all the markings of a carefully prepared hit.

“We will have no mercy, and we will not forgive the hand that was raised against the leader of freedom, Juliano Khamis,” declared Zubeidi, who as a youngster participated in the theater group founded by the slain actor’s mother.

On the streets of the camp, residents said that while there had been criticism of the theater by people who accused it of violating traditional social norms, there was broad support for the center’s educational activities for local youths. Mer Khamis, who lived next to the camp, was a familiar face on the streets and was widely accepted despite his Israeli origins, the residents said.

“We got accustomed to him,” said Ayman Saadi at his shop near the theater. “He became one of us.”

In an interview rebroadcast Tuesday on Israeli Army Radio, Mer Khamis said he straddled both identities, Israeli and Palestinian. He noted that most of his mother’s family had died in a Nazi concentration camp and that most of his father’s relatives became refugees in Lebanon after Israel’s creation.

“I’m a son of both peoples,” he said. “Either we live together, or we won’t live at all.”

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