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Director shot dead outside Jenin theater

April 4, 2011 6:20 A.M. (Updated: April 5, 2011 6:21 A.M.)
JENIN (Ma'an) -- Unknown assailants shot dead the General-Director of the Freedom Theater in Jenin outside the venue on Monday. He had reestablished the theater, founded by his mother, after it fell into disuse during the Second Intifadah.

Juliano Mer-Khamis, 52, was shot five times while leaving the theater, and died at Jenin Hospital, local security sources told a Ma'an correspondent. They said his body was handed to Israeli authorities at the Jalama crossing north of Jenin.

Unknown gunmen inside the city's refugee camp opened fire on his car, Jenin police chief Mohammed Tayim told AFP.

Witnesses in the camp told AFP they saw two masked gunmen open fire on his car before speeding away. However, Jenin governor Qadura Musa told AFP initial reports indicated a lone gunman had carried out the attack.

"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.

The nanny of Mer-Khamis's son was injured in the attack, police told Ma'an.

Musa said said he was not aware of any threats against Mer-Khamis.

"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."

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad strongly condemned the murder. "Such criminal acts will not be tolerated under any circumstances."

He added: "It constitutes a severe violation of our principles and values and goes against our peoples’ morals and beliefs in co-existence."

The premier ordered security services to work round the clock to bring the assailants to justice.

Actor and activist

Mer-Khamis was a well-known film and theater actor and activist. His mother, Arna Mer, was a Jewish Israeli who campaigned for Palestinian rights and established a theater in Jenin refugee camp in the 1980s. His father was a Palestinian Christian, Saliba Khamis. Mer-Khamis, an Israeli citizen, was born in Nazareth.

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."

Following a well-received documentary on his mother's activities in the camp, which he directed, the actor established the Jenin Freedom Theater in 2006 with former military leader of the Jenin Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Zakaria Zubeidi. Mer-Khamis had lived in the city's camp for seven years.

The theater is a cultural center in the refugee camp which is home to some 16,000 Palestinian refugees, more than half of them minors.

One of Jenin's 'sons'

Governor Qadura Musa condemned the killing of the actor, who he said was "one of the camp's sons."

Mer-Khamis lived in the refugee camp "through sweet and bitter days" and developed the theater to reject oppression, injustice and occupation, the governor said.

He always worked to help Palestinians to achieve their rights, Musa said, adding that all those who knew him in Jenin felt great pain for his loss.

The governor said the Palestinian judiciary would find those responsible and punish them in court.

Theater a refuge from violence

Originally known as as The Stone Theater, Mer-Khamis' mother established the space in 1987 for the children of Jenin to 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 and reopened in 2006 by her actor son with the help of Zakaria Zubeidi, who himself was part of the theater project.

Mer-Khamis's 2004 documentary film "Arna's Children" about the theater won first prize at the Canadian International Documentary Festival the same year.

But the theater was not without its critics. In 2009, two arson attacks damaged the Freedom Theater, and a number of threats were reportedly made against the initiative. In one attack, two molotov cocktails were hurled at the building, which was empty at the time, setting the door on fire.

Since then, there have been no reports of attacks or threats against the theater or those running it, locals and officials told AFP.

AFP contributed to this report
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