The Killing of Juliano Mer Khamis

On 4 April 2011, the Israeli-Arab actor, director and film maker Juliano Mer Khamis was shot dead in Jenin, Palestine.

This was not an unexpected attack. The Freedom Theatre that he had established had been attacked with Molotov cocktails in the past, its door torched, and Mer Khamis himself had received threats. ‘But what choice do I have? To run? I am not a fleeing man,’ he said in an interview. ‘I am an [Israeli] 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.’[1] In the end, even the field training given to Israeli elite troops proved inadequate to save Mer Khamis.

In his death, the world lost a brave and imaginative artist.

Juliano Mer Khamis was 52 years old. He was an actor and a director. He had acted in several films, including opposite Diane Keaton in the adaptation of John Le Carre’s thriller, The Little Drummer Girl, and in Amos Gitai’s Kippur. He got offers from Hollywood, where they wanted to make him the next Antonio Banderas. He certainly had the looks. But he preferred to stay in Israel/Palestine, and work at the Freedom Theatre he had set up in 2006. And once he signed the letter of boycott of Palestinian artists refusing to work in Israeli institutions, he gave up his acting career altogether.

The Freedom Theatre itself has a fascinating history. The precursor to the theatre was the Care and Learning Project set up by Juliano’s mother Arna Mer in 1989 during the first Intifada. Arna was an Israeli Jew, and had taken part in the Arab-Israel war of 1948. Subsequently, she joined the Communist Party of Israel and there she met, and later married, Saliba Khamis, a Christian Arab and Secretary of the Party. Juliano was named after Salvatore Guiliano, a handsome Italian bandit who led a revolt of landless peasants against landlords in Italy.

A man with a hyphenated identity, Juliano, then, was an Israeli-Arab-Christian-Jew. Or, as he famously put it, ‘I am 100 per cent Palestinian and 100 per cent Jewish’.

Arna worked in the Jenin refugee camp, possibly the worst of all camps in Palestine. This was in the late 1980s and early 90s, during the first Intifada. She drew the children into the theatre. These were children for whom destruction of homes and livelihood was a fact of life. For whom death was a fact of life.

‘We’re not good Christians’

Juliano’s 2003 award-winning documentary, Arna’s Children, asks the question, what became of the children as they grew up? This film is a most remarkable document of our times – it gives an insight into life under occupation, and even more remarkably, it showed the world, for the first time, the faces and biographies of the young men who fought and resisted during the second Intifada. These were pre-adolescent children when Arna worked with them in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1993, she was awarded the ‘Alternate Nobel Prize’, the money from which went into the theatre. By the time the second Intifada began in September 2000, the children had grown up to be young men. Many took to arms. Many fell to arms.

In the film, we see young Ala sitting listlessly on the rubble of his home. Arna talks about it to the children. Why did Ala sleep in his aunt’s home last night, she asks. They tell her. Sitting next to Ala is Ashraf, with an angelic face. His house was next door to Ala’s. It got destroyed when they destroyed Ala’s house. Who did that, asks Arna. The Israeli army, says Ashraf. What will you do to the army, asks Arna? I’ll kill them, says Ashraf. Show me, says Arna, I’m the army. Ashraf gets up, and starts hitting Arna playfully. She then gives the children paper, which they tear to shreds. All right, says Arna, this is anger. And when we get angry, we have to express it. She then gives them paint and paper, and asks them to express their anger in a painting.

Years later, when Ashraf is already dead and Ala has become a fighter, Juliano meets him and asks if he remembers the painting he had done as a child in Arna’s workshop. Yes, says Ala. It was a house with a Palestinian flag on it. At the end of the film, Ala is dead too.

One of the critiques of the film has been that Arna’s work did not prevent the children from taking up arms in later life. Such a critique misses the point of the work that Arna – and Juliano – were doing.  It would have been so nice had Arna been a simple do-gooder, who healed tormented children by drawing them into the world of art. But Arna was not a do-gooder. She was a militant. In a 2006 interview, Juliano spoke about his mother’s work:

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