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Observation Post by Philip C. Winslow: The Murder of a Peacemaker

WinslowToday's post is the latest in a Beacon Broadside series: Observation Post by journalist and foreign correspondent Philip C. Winslow. Over a career that has spanned more than twenty-five years, Winslow has reported on world events for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean's magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and worked for the UN in the West Bank for nearly three years. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis and Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War.

Juliano_mer_khamis Juliano Mer-Khamis was assassinated in the Jenin refugee camp on April 4, 2011.

The 52-year-old radical filmmaker, actor and director was shot five times by a masked gunman outside The Freedom Theatre, in the West Bank town once better known for its suicide bombers than for theater. In the refugee camp, Mer-Khamis's murder triggered two things: quiet outrage and just plain quiet. His drama productions and classes provide an oxygen-rich outlet for many children in the traumatized camp, but have badly upset conservative elements.

Mer-Khamis, who was half-Arab and half-Jewish by birth, was a provocateur and challenger, and knew the risks. Practically foretelling his own murder he once remarked that after all his work it would be a shame to die from a Palestinian bullet. He told Israel's Army Radio in 2009 that he was "one hundred percent Palestinian and one hundred percent Jewish". The comment reflected the tightrope nature of his bold cross-cultural ventures: To be one-hundred percent anything in Israel or occupied Palestine invites criticism or opprobrium; to boast a two-hundred percent identity is confrontational.

Yet confrontational, in the sense of demanding unfettered thought and expression, is what Mer-Khamis was all about. Plays such as Animal Farm and The Lieutenant of Inishmore may have opened young minds in Jenin but they also brought arson, broken windows, death threats and schedule postponements.

Juliano's mother, Arna Mer, laid the foundations. A Zionist who fought in the Palmach and later married a Palestinian Christian, Arna was as tough and colorful as Jerusalem stone, and devoted her later years to working for the rights of Palestinians under occupation. I wrote about Arna and her original drama group, and reactionary undercurrents in Jenin in April 2009.

The original theater was destroyed by Israeli forces in 2002, perhaps the most violent year of the second intifada. Juliano later made the documentary Arna's Children. You can read more about Arna and her life here.

Book Cover for Victory for Us is to See You Suffer by Philip C. Winslow Was Juliano too provocative? The answer can depend on the audience. Animal Farm, where children play the role of pigs, certainly was too much for some in a long-isolated town where drama and music schools are regarded as suspicious and subversive. Having children wear pig masks, and implying criticism of leaders – men, whose worldview is tightly bound with the concept of honor – is asking for trouble head-on.

What else? Adnan Hindi, the head of the camp's Popular Committee, has taken a hard line in the past about music performances. The Guardian reported Hindi's reaction to the murder and about a leaflet that circulated in the camp justifying it, as intolerant and backward-looking as the language was.

A couple days after the murder, Palestinian Authority (PA) police arrested a suspect. That news immediately degenerated into a Palestinian slanging match over whether the then-suspect was a member of Hamas (the ruling party in Gaza) or had connections to Fatah (the predominant party in the West Bank). The suspect apparently was later released.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (of Fatah) then took an unusual step to set things right and paper over the political chasm, by announcing that both Mer-Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni, the Italian peace activist who was abducted and killed in Gaza by a Salafist group in mid-April, would be awarded the Medal of Jerusalem.

"The assassination of the two activists does not reflect the traditions, habits and morals of the Palestinian people and all humans," Abbas said. I won't quibble with the president over whether assassination is a human tradition: The award was a small step reflecting Abbas's opposition to violence and another attempt to heal the destructive Hamas-Fatah quarrel.

I asked some friends about Mer-Khamis, and about what the theater means for Jenin.

"I know we have some crazy people among us who do not think right," a longtime Palestinian friend in Jenin told me.

"What I am sure of is this [murder] did not happen in our name as Palestinians and did not happen in the name of Islam. What Juliano did for Jenin camp was great, what he did for the children was great, and when he was killed [it] was a sad day for everyone who knew him. . . . Whoever killed Juliano and the Italian should be punished, and anyone behind them should be stopped . . . they are not working to the benefit of Palestine; on the contrary they . . . help the Israeli occupation, to make our picture darker in front of the world."

Juliano's plan to stage a controversial German play about teenage sexuality may have been the last straw in a society where dancing, or even the appearance of girls and boys on the same stage, is likely to be condemned as prurient.

Reconciliation attempts sometimes forge unexpected alliances. Zakaria Zubeidi, a close friend of Mer-Khamis and co-founder of The Freedom Theatre, is a former member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and was long on Israel's most-wanted list. Depressingly, Zubeidi was quoted as saying that "there will be no forgiveness" for Juliano's killers. Despite Zubeidi's current peace credentials, "no forgiveness" sounds rather fatwa-like. Hopefully the pronouncement will not be part of the cycle of retribution. (In a sidebar to the murder of Arrigoni in Gaza, Hamas exacted punishment on the Italian's killers in distinctive fashion.)

An old friend who knows Jenin well and has more than twenty years experience as an observer in the Middle East said that Juliano could have been more accommodating to Jenin cultural and religious customs. "Children in the camp certainly benefited from the theater," he said. "But Jenin was slowly, slowly recovering from the total disaster of 2002, and Juliano had served in the IDF [the Israel Defense Forces], and was a Jew and an Israeli. As the wound [of the intifada] was slowly healing, it might not have been the best time and place to implement such extreme things. I can understand that it created a lot of tension in people's minds."

This friend, a skilled negotiator, is habitually cautious and patient about trying to shift people's positions. "[The traditional Muslim view] is the fact on the ground, and if you want to change things you have to get people's trust, and then when the time is right you can introduce Western thinking and modern ideas. And you have to earn the trust of the whole society – not just the children, but the parents and the elders".

Someone else remarked that it was a shame that Mer-Khamis, who was passionately of both communities, was never fully accepted by either. His mother, equally passionate for justice and freedom, would have understood. When Arna died in 1995, some Israelis vehemently opposed her burial in Israel, and she was at last laid to rest at the Ramot Menashe kibbutz. Some photos of her son's funeral, in the same kibbutz, are here, and there are numerous tributes on Facebook.

Finally, I asked an Israeli friend, a former army officer and a conciliation expert, to assess Juliano's work. "He was a very unusual bird – for us and [for] them. I believe he came up too early. But this is the only way changes can be done, and someone pays the bill [for all] of us."

What happens to the theater without Juliano? The theater coordinator, Rawand Arkavi, told the Guardian: "We were cautious before but now we don't care if they shoot all of us. We will keep the theatre going". My Palestinian friend echoed the determination: "The time of fear is gone".