September 22, 2019

Arab-Israeli cultural revolutionary Juliano Mer-Khamis shot dead in West Bank [UPDATED]


Palestinian security forces arrested on Tuesday a suspect in the killing of Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis in Jenin on Monday.

According to a security official, Palestinian police have been probing the man – a former al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades militant who was released from Israeli prison more than five years ago – but he has yet to confess to the murder.

ON MONDAY: is reporting that Arab-Israeli actor and political activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, who established the Freedom Theater in the Jenin Refugee Camp, has been shot dead. Early reports and photographs suggest a group of masked Palestinian militants shot Mer-Khamis five times as he was sitting in his car near the theater.

Mer-Khamis, who was something of a cultural revolutionary in the Palestinian territories, had been the target of threats before. The half-Jewish Arab-Israeli was the subject of a series of menacing flyers circulated in 2009, and later that year, the door of his theater was torched. 

So far the motive for the murder is unknown. But the actor’s complex identity and unorthodox political views may have earned him a few enemies. For starters, Mer-Khamis was born to a Jewish mother, Arna Mer who chose to live and work in the Palestinian territories.

According to a story published by Maclean’s, Arna was the daughter of a distinguished Jewish medical professor but fell in love with an Arab-Israeli political leader:

ARNA MER, the daughter of Gideon Mer, a distinguished Jewish professor of medicine, was one of the first Israelis to ignore parental warnings when she married Saliva Khamis, an Arab and one of the leaders of the Israeli Communist Party, in the 1950s. They were wed in a Catholic church by a priest who was drunk at the time. But Mer wouldn’t realize how deep the divisions ran until 1958, when she joined a protest against the imposition of martial law on Arab villages in Israel. Mer was pregnant with her son Juliano, and went into labour. She was rushed to the hospital, “but the doctors refused to stitch her and she nearly bled to death,” says her son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, 45, a well-known actor living in Haifa. “They knew she was married to an Arab. I experienced this racial lunacy from the day I was born.” As he grew up, Mer-Khamis says, he constantly asked himself: “Do I hate Arabs and love Jews or do I love Arabs and hate Jews?” That question was on his mind when he met the parents of a Jewish girlfriend. “I was sitting with her translating an Arabic movie,” he recalls. “Her father walked into the room. I eluded his questions, but he researched about me and forced her to leave me.”

Ever conflicted, Juliano was brought up between two worlds. Vacillating between identities, he served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade, but eventually defected:

Mer-Khamis for a time adopted his Jewish maternal name and joined an elite fighting unit of the Israeli army. “For a whole year my father wouldn’t talk to me. He simply kept silent,” he says. But he soon had to face his Arab heritage. The confrontation came in 1978 when he was stationed at the West Bank town of Jenin and a car arrived with three young passengers and their grandfather. When he refused an order to remove the old man from the car, he ended up in a fight with his commander and was imprisoned for a few weeks and left the army. “It was then that I realized,” he says, “that I don’t belong on the Jewish side.”

According to Ynet, Mer-Khamis began his acting career in 1984 with a strong Hollywood foray, starring opposite Diane Keaton in the film “The Little Drummer Girl”. He also starred in Israeli director Amos Gitai’s controversial take on the Yom Kippur war, “Kippur” and was nominated for a Best Actor Ophir (Israel’s version of Oscar) for the 2002 romance “Tahara”.

Mer-Khanis and his mother first established a theater together in 1988, though it was destroyed in the second Intifada. And in 2006, they established what is now known as the Freedom Theater. 

Though Mer Khamis was an artist at heart, he held strong views in support of Palestinian self-determination and saw the Freedom Theater as a therapeutic tool in coping with the conflict. According to the theater’s Website, the institution was established to offer Palestinian youngsters a creative outlet for their pain: “Having endured the hardships of an ongoing, violent military occupation, Palestine today is a shattered society and the population struggles with increasing isolation, fragmentation and disillusion. Countering these trends, The Freedom Theatre believes that theatre and the arts have a crucial role to play in building up a free and healthy society.”

In a youtube video about the theater, Mer-Khanis says, “We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural—with poetry and music, theater, cameras and magazines.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemned Mer-Khanis’s murder, saying, “We must not ignore this heinous crime…a gross violation of humane values and against the morals of our people.”

In an eerily portentous interview with Ynet in 2009, the same year the theater was torched, Mer-Khamis said he feared for his life:

“But what choice do I have? To run? I am not a fleeing man,” he said.

“I am an elite force man, formerly of the paratroopers. The only two things I gained from Israeli culture are Shlonsky’s translations of Shakespeare and adequate field training. Now I need it.”

However, the actor added, he was taking precautions. Of those behind the fliers he said, “It makes them crazy that a man who is half-Jewish is at the head of one of the most important projects in the Palestinian West Bank and it is just hypocritical racism.”

“I have never been as Jewish as I am right now in Jenin. After all this work at the camp it would be extremely unfortunate to die of a Palestinian bullet[.]”

Watch: The murder scene captured by Israeli news media

Watch: Mer-Khanis explains the Freedom Theater