Palestinians honor slain Arab-Israeli actor

AP News
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Posted: Apr 05, 2011 12:26 PM
Palestinians honor slain Arab-Israeli actor

Scores of tearful Palestinians held a memorial service Tuesday for a popular Israeli-Arab actor who was shot dead outside the theater he founded, and his business partner said the theater would press forward with its work despite fears that the killers objected to its activities.

The memorial for Juliano Mer Khamis took place at the Freedom Theater, the amateur stage company he founded in 2006 as a way to restore normalcy for the town's youth after years of bloodshed with Israel.

Mer Khamis, 52, was adored by his followers but also had infuriated many in this conservative corner of the West Bank with his outspoken views that criticized Israelis and Palestinians alike. Many also objected to the mingling of boys and girls at the theater.

The actor was shot to death by a masked gunman in the Jenin refugee camp, about 50 yards (meters) away from the theater, according to police. Nobody claimed responsibility, but the theater's co-founder, former militant Zakariya Zubeidi, blamed an "extremist criminal" and insisted the killing was politically motivated, not personal.

A decade ago, Zubeidi headed the local wing of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant group, gaining a reputation as a ruthless fighter. But as the Palestinian uprising against Israel fizzled out, he chose to lay down his arms, was granted amnesty by Israel and chose theater as his nonviolent path toward Palestinian independence.

"I promise you to catch whomever did this very soon," Zubeidi told the somber memorial, where about 200 Palestinians and foreign activists gathered next to a large picture of the slain director flanked by a Palestinian flag and black flag of mourning.

He said the theater would not be intimidated into halting its work. "The theater will continue," he vowed.

Young Palestinian actors, in their early twenties, were in anguish.

"We will not forget our teacher Juliano, and we'll follow his path," said actor Moamin Sweitat.

Despite the pledges to carry on, the theater could have a hard time without Mer Khamis. The slain actor, whose work included a role in the 1984 movie "The Little Drummer Girl," was a personality whose international connections brought funding and foreign actors to the theater. Monday's killing could also deter people, particularly foreigners, from getting involved with the theater.

Palestinian leaders ordered security forces to launch a full-scale manhunt for the shooter, and security officials said late Tuesday that one man was in custody.

A woman who was with Mer Khamis and was lightly wounded in the shooting was trying to identify the killer but was having difficulty because his face was covered during the attack, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

Mer Khamis was the son of a Jewish mother and a Christian Arab father _ a rarity in a land where the two populations almost never intermarry. He also was an Israeli citizen who served in the Israeli military as a youth. His split identity fueled a long career as an actor and a vocal activist against Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

Mer Khamis' mother, an Israeli Jew, ran a youth theater in Jenin in the 1980s, before a pair of Palestinian uprisings made it all but impossible for Israelis to visit the town. The theater was destroyed in 2002 during an Israeli military offensive against Palestinian militants, some of them young men who had once been actors there.

The new Freedom Theater _ which aimed to introduce children to the wider world beyond their harsh surroundings _ drew criticism and vandalism from some Palestinians who were suspicious of Mer Khamis ,and who appeared to see the theater as a threat to their traditions.