Three weeks after the murder of Israeli Arab actor and film producer Juliano Mer- Khamis in the Jenin refugee camp, the Palestinian Authority security forces say they still don’t have a clue to the identity of the assassin.
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The PA’s failure to lay its hands on the assailant who killed Mer-Khamis stands in sharp contrast to Hamas’s swift action against the kidnappers who last week murdered Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in the Gaza Strip.
On Tuesday, Hamas policemen killed two members of the gang that abducted and murdered Arrigoni, whose body was discovered in an abandoned house in Gaza City early Friday morning.
Another three suspects, all members of the radical Tawheed wal-Jihad group, have been arrested by Hamas security forces and are expected to face the death penalty.
Some of Mer-Khamis’s friends on Thursday expressed disappointment with the PA’s handling of the case and said they would appeal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to instruct his security forces in the West Bank to intensify their efforts to catch the culprit.
Mer-Khamis, 52, was gunned down shortly after he walked out of the Freedom Theater, which he had established and managed in the refugee camp.
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A gunman approached Mer-Khamis as he got into his car with his 11-month-old son and a babysitter and fired seven shots at him. The actor died almost immediately after arriving at Jenin Hospital.
The babysitter and the infant were not hurt. The babysitter, who has been identified only as Widad, told police investigators that the gunman donned a mask as he fled the scene after the shooting.
Police believe that she is the only person who saw the face of the assassin.
Hours after the assassination, the PA security forces arrested Mujahed Qaniri, a former member of Fatah’s armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, and declared him a prime suspect.
PA security sources said that Qaniri was an arms dealer who had defected to Hamas. They also pointed out that the suspect had served six years in an Israeli prison for security-related offenses.
A PA official in Jenin even hinted that Hamas could have been behind the assassination of Mer-Khamis – an allegation that has since been strongly denied by the Islamist movement leaders in the Gaza Strip.
But Qaniri has since been released from detention after he denied any link to the case.
The babysitter, Widad, has since disappeared, with the PA giving conflicting accounts regarding her whereabouts.
The PA security forces initially said that the babysitter, who is from the Arroub refugee camp south of Hebron, was being held in custody pending the end of the investigation.
However, the PA governor of Jenin, Qadoura Fares, said he did not know whether she was still in detention or had been released.
“I don’t know if she’s still being held in detention out of fear for her safety or whether she has been released,” he said.
One of Mer-Khamis’s friends claimed that the babysitter has been staying at the actor’s rented apartment near the refugee camp ever since she was released from detention.
However, Palestinian reporter Mustapha Qablawi, who visited the apartment to inquire about the babysitter, met another friend who told him that she was still in detention.
The friend said that the babysitter was being held at the headquarters of the PA security forces in Jenin and that she was not permitted to see anyone for “security reasons.”
But the deputy commander of the Jenin Police, Muhanad Sawwan, denied that the babysitter was being held in detention.
“We never held the woman even for one minute,” he said. “We only asked her to give a testimony since she was the main witness in the case and then we released her,” he said. “Widad was only a witness to the crime and according to the law, witnesses are not jailed.”
Sources in Jenin said that the PA has banned the babysitter from talking to reporters and friends. They claimed that the woman has gone into hiding out of fear for her life.
Zakariya Zubaidi, former commander of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the camp and co-manager of the Freedom Theater, said he too did not know anything about the whereabouts of the babysitter. He added that he also did not know anything about the investigation, although he was one of the first people to be questioned by the PA security forces.
“We have a feeling that the Palestinian Authority knows more than it’s telling us about the murder of Mer- Khamis,” said one of the slain actor’s colleagues. “We also have a feeling that some of Mer-Khamis’s closest friends are behaving in a strange and suspicious manner, especially because of their refusal to talk about the case.”
Another friend who worked closely with Mer-Khamis said he had a feeling that the PA security forces were not interested in conducting a thorough investigation into the assassination.
“I have a feeling that they are trying to hide something,” she said.
“The babysitter saw the man who shot Mer-Khamis and she might even know
his identity. This is a very small place where most people know each other.”
Adnan Damiri, spokesman for the PA security forces in the West Bank,
admitted that there was no progress in the investigation into the murder
of Mer-Khamis. He confirmed that the prime suspect in the case had been
released because of lack of evidence.
He said that the murder of the famous actor, who was known as a staunch
supporter of the Palestinians, was a major challenge to the PA and its
security apparatuses. He said that the PA security forces were taking the murder seriously and
that Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were showing great interest
in the case.
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