Actor Juliano Mer-Khamis gunned down in Jenin

Prominent Israeli filmmaker and peace activist was the son of a Jewish mother and a Christian Arab father from Nazareth.

Palestinians denounce killing of actor Juliano Mer-Khamis 31 (photo credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)
Palestinians denounce killing of actor Juliano Mer-Khamis 31
(photo credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)
Well-known actor, filmmaker and peace activist Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot dead in his car Monday in Jenin, the volatile West Bank city in which he made his home and founded the controversial Freedom Theater.
A masked assailant shot Mer-Khamis five times from close range at the entrance to the theater, a Palestinian Authority security source said, adding that a woman who was in the car was lightly wounded.
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PA security forces made several arrests after the shooting.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Mer-Khamis is survived by his wife, who is pregnant with twins, a daughter and a son, who was reportedly also with him at the time of the shooting.
Mer-Khamis, 52, was rushed from the theater in the Jenin refugee camp to the city’s hospital, but doctors were unable to save his life.
His body was later transferred through a checkpoint to Israeli authorities and taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir.
Mer-Khamis was the son of Arna Mer, a Jewish Israeli activist for Palestinian causes, and Saliba Khamis, a Nazareth-born Christian and one of the leaders of the Israeli Communist Party in the 1950s. The filmmaker’s maternal grandfather was Gideon Mer, a Lithuanian-born scientist who pioneered the study of malaria in Mandate- era Palestine.
An uncompromising critic of Israel in later life, Mer-Khamis’s mixed parentage meant he spent much of his life straddling both sides of the Green Line.
He was born and raised in Nazareth, the hub of Arab life in Galilee, but served as a combat soldier in the elite IDF Paratroopers Brigade and as an adult split his time between Haifa and Jenin.
His cousins are the director and screenwriter Lihi Hanoch (the former wife of iconic pop star Shalom Hanoch) and the musician Ran Efron.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemned the killing.
“We cannot stand silent in the face of this ugly crime,” he said. “It constitutes a grave violation that goes beyond all principles and human values, and it contravenes the customs and ethics of coexistence.”
Kadoura Musa, the PA governor of Jenin, said a team had been set up to investigate the murder.
“The person who did this will be caught regardless of his identity,” Musa said. Mer- Khamis, he said, “was a resident of the Jenin refugee camp and helped build Palestine. He did not deserve to die this way.”
The Jenin refugee camp was the scene of one the fiercest battles of 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield after the IDF determined it to be the home of a “large and varied terrorist infrastructure” and the launch pad for a number of deadly suicide attacks.
Mer-Khamis opened the Freedom Theater there in 2006. The venue was firebombed three years later, after leaflets were distributed in the refugee camp describing Mer- Khamis as a “fifth column” and calling for his death.
In a 2009 Reuters interview, Mer-Khamis attributed the opposition to a “ghetto mentality"” and “dictatorship of tradition” built up under Israeli occupation.
One of the theater’s cofounders was Zakariya Zubeidi, Jenin chief of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades described in a 2006 Sunday Times profile as “chief strategist of suicide bombers in the camp Israelis refer to as ‘the capital of suicide terrorism.’” In 2007 Zubeidi renounced terrorism and said he had committed himself to “cultural resistance” through theater.
On Monday, a Jenin resident who lives near the theater told Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “I don’t think he was killed because he was Jewish. Some people were angry with the liberal values he was promoting at the theater, but to me he was a very nice guy who worked hard for the people here.”
Mer-Khamis was an outspoken, often strident proponent of Palestinian rights and a fierce critic of Israel. “Armed struggle is legitimate as long as it’s against an occupier and is done on occupied land,” he said in a 2009 press conference at his theater.
“But if there isn’t history, culture and art behind one’s rifle, that rifle kills rather than liberates.”
“I’m in favor of a single Palestinian state from the river to the sea,” he said at the same press conference. “If the Jews want to live with us, ahlan wasahlan (welcome).”
He consistently rejected the label of “Israeli-Arab,” telling Israel Radio the same year: “I’m 100-percent Palestinian, and 100-percent Jewish.”
Mer-Khamis’s first film was The Little Drummer Girl, a 1984 US adaptation of a John Le Carre thriller on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. He later appeared in a number of films by leading Israeli filmmakers Avi Nesher and Amos Gitai, and in Wedding in Galilee by the Nazareth-born director Michel Khleifi.
In 2002, he was nominated best actor at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s “Oscars,” for his performance in Gitai’s film Kedma.
A year later, Mer-Khamis produced and co-directed his first documentary film, Arna’s Children, on his mother’s work to establish a children’s theater group in Jenin in the 1980s.
Israelis from the film and theater world also expressed their shock at the killing.
“He was a special person, brave but crazy to do what he did,” fellow actor Alon Abutbul told Reuters.
“I was stunned, I stopped breathing, he was a person I liked so much,” added Nesher. “This is such an absurd murder because he went there to give.”