Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
April 6, 2011 - 12:00am

Juliano Mer Khamis lived a paradox. The internationally renowned actor, director and political activist, who was killed here this week, was both an Israeli and a Palestinian, born to a Jewish mother and an Arab Christian father in the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth.

Mr. Mer Khamis embodied the Israeli-Arab conflict and embraced its complexities in a way that few could. He was regarded as an Arab by many Israelis, and by some in this West Bank city, his adopted home, first and foremost as a Jew.

Slain by masked gunmen, presumed to be Palestinians, on Monday near his beloved Freedom Theater, which he founded in 2006 on the edge of the Jenin refugee camp, Mr. Mer Khamis, who was 52, left the people he inspired on both sides of the lines devastated and perplexed.

“Juliano was always joking with me, saying, ‘Nabil, one day I’ll be shot in the head in the street and I’ll shout to you for help,’ ” said Nabil al-Raee, 32, the director of the theater’s acting school. “But he did not really feel it coming. Not in this way.”

“The truth is a lot of people loved him,” Mr. Raee continued, “but at the same time, a lot of people believed there was some secret behind him, because he was accepted in both societies.”

Fittingly, Mr. Mer Khamis’s funeral was as anomalous as his life. In an extraordinary scene on Wednesday, his coffin was brought from Israel through the Jalameh checkpoint, the main crossing for Jenin in the northern West Bank. A few footsteps inside Palestinian territory, it was laid briefly on the open ground so that Palestinians who were unable to get the necessary permits to attend the burial in Israel could bid him farewell.

A group of Israeli artists and friends accompanied the purple velvet coffin to the Palestinian side, where it was draped with a Palestinian flag. Miri Aloni, a veteran Israeli singer, sang her “Song for Peace” in Hebrew and Arabic.

As the coffin was carried back toward the checkpoint, young pallbearers gave Mr. Mer Khamis a Palestinian fighter’s funeral, chanting “God is great.”

Later, Mr. Mer Khamis was laid to rest in a kibbutz in northern Israel in a grave next to that of his mother, Arna Mer, an Israeli activist who devoted her own last years to the children of Jenin.

In a movie that Mr. Mer Khamis made about his mother’s legacy, “Arna’s Children,” Mr. Mer Khamis said that the secular, socialist communal farm was “the only place that agreed to bury her.”

“Arna’s Children” presents both the promise and the limitations of an effort to enrich lives in the Jenin refugee camp, which a decade ago was a hotbed of militancy and a prime source of suicide bombers who went to blow themselves up in Israel.

In the movie, Mr. Mer Khamis tracks a few of the children who acted in his mother’s children’s theater here in the 1990s. The second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, erupted in 2000 and led to an Israeli military invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, with heavy losses on both sides. During this period, some of the budding actors became hardened fighters; many others died.

The youngest of them joined Islamic Jihad and was killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers. His brother, known as the joker of the group, went on a suicide mission with a friend, fatally shooting four women in the Israeli town of Hadera before police officers gunned them down. A third led a group of militants and was killed.

Today, the core of the Freedom Theater staff and its supporters say they do not oppose armed struggle and that the Palestinians may resist the Israeli occupation by all means. But they also say the theater offers an alternative form of resistance: that of a cultural revolution.

Zakaria Zubeidi, 35, is a former leader of Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the camp who tried to give Mr. Mer Khamis, a longtime family friend, and the Freedom Theater his protection. “In the end, both have the same goal,” he said, “to get rid of the occupation.”

“I selected this cultural path for now, and it is not an easy one,” Mr. Zubeidi said. “There is blood outside in the street. One of ours has been assassinated.”

Mr. Mer Khamis’s close associates said they believed that the killing was politically motivated, and that the assassins wanted to snuff out his ideas. Mr. Mer Khamis could not accept a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he felt would essentially mean division. He advocated the idea of one state with equal rights for both peoples.

Mr. Mer Khamis kept a foot in both places, living in a small apartment building in Jenin with Mr. Zubeidi, Mr. Raee and their families, and maintaining a home in the Israeli port city of Haifa, where he grew up and where he acted and directed in the Midan Arabic theater.

Though he had an international following, having starred in movies like “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984) and, more recently, Julian Schnabel’s “Miral,” Mr. Mer Khamis ultimately chose the alleyways of the Jenin camp over Hollywood.

For many youths in the camp, where death has hovered for so long, Mr. Mer Khamis and the Freedom Theater have been transformative.

Rabia Turkman, 26, an actor, was one of the first class of students in 2007. He was a wanted man during the intifada, having belonged to Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades.

“My understanding of the struggle was totally different when I held a rifle,” he said. “I consider myself a freedom fighter when I am on the stage,” he added. “Juliano is the one who taught me how to resist through culture.”

Arij Ayaseh, 21, a young woman from a nearby village and a new student at the acting school, said the death of Mr. Mer Khamis was a “lost dream,” adding: “We will not find another like him, but we will continue in his path.”


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