By Saif Dahlah/AFP
Masked gunmen shot dead a well-known Jewish-Arab actor and director on Monday in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, Palestinian police and medics said.
The killing of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a rare figure straddling the bitter Israel-Palestinian divide, sparked outrage on both sides and was condemned by the Palestinian prime minister as a “despicable crime.”
The 52-year-old director of The Freedom Theater died when gunmen inside the town’s refugee camp opened fire on his car, hitting him with five bullets, police chief Mohammed Tayim told AFP.
Witnesses told AFP they saw two masked gunmen open fire on his car before speeding away.
An Israeli citizen, Mer-Khamis was born of a Jewish Israeli mother, Arna Mer, and a Palestinian Christian father, Saliba Khamis, and had lived in Jenin for seven years, officials said.
He was well-known for his political activism as well as his acting and directing, and most recently starred in “Miral” (2010), the story of two Palestinian women after the creation of Israel in 1948, which had its premiere at UN headquarters in New York.
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad condemned the killing and said he had ordered the Palestinian security services to “work round the clock” to find the killers.
“This despicable crime will not be tolerated under any circumstances: it constitutes a severe violation of our principles and values and goes against our people’s morals and beliefs in co-existence,” Fayyad said in statement.
Later Mer-Khamis body was transferred to Israel.
Jenin governor Qadura Musa told AFP there may have been just one gunman.
“He was shot by a masked gunman who fired five bullets into the window of his car,” he said. A woman from Bethlehem who was in the car with him was wounded in the hand, he said.
Musa said he was not aware of any threats against Mer-Khamis, although his theater had been attacked in the past.
“We have not arrested anyone yet, but we have formed a crisis group from all the Palestinian security forces to investigate this crime and we hope to have some results within the coming hours,” he added.
With his mixed parentage, Mer-Khamis refused to describe himself as an Arab Israeli, telling Israel’s army radio in 2009: “I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.”
The theater was first set up by his mother, Arna Mer-Khamis, in 1987, when it was known as The Stone Theater.
A committed peace activist, she had wanted to create a space where the children of Jenin could escape the violence of the first intifada which had begun several months earlier.
Fifteen years later, the theater was destroyed during the second intifada when Israeli troops launched a massive operation to root out gunmen from the refugee camp — then a major militant stronghold.
It was rebuilt in 2004 by her actor son with the help of Zakaria Zubeidi, one of the most powerful militants in the city, who himself was part of the theater project.
“Everyone in the camp loved him, I don’t have any more words,” Zubeidi told Israel’s Channel 10 television after the killing.
In Ramallah, some 50 Palestinian artists and actors gathered in a central square to protest against the killing. They held up signs saying Mer-Khamis’s murder was “a loss for Palestine.”
The story about his mother’s work with the children of Jenin was documented by Mer-Khamis’s 2004 film “Arna’s Children,” which won first prize at the Canadian International Documentary Festival the same year.
The Freedom Theater doubles as a cultural centre inside the refugee camp which is home to some 16,000 Palestinian refugees, more than half of them minors.
But the theater was not without its critics. Two years ago, two Molotov cocktails were hurled at the building, which was empty at the time, setting the door ablaze.
Since then, there have been no reports of attacks or threats against the theater or those running it, locals and officials said.