Juliano Mer-Khamis
Juliano Mer-Khamis, left, with former terrorist Zakaria Zubeidi in Jenin in 2006. Photo by Nir Kafri
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A well-known Israeli actor, director and political activist was gunned down yesterday in the West Bank town where he ran a drama school and community theater, Palestinian police said. Juliano Mer-Khamis was killed in his car just meters from the Freedom Theater which he had founded.

Jenin police chief Mohammed Tayyim said Mer-Khamis was shot five times by masked Palestinian militants, and that Israeli security forces were still investigating the circumstances of his murder.

His body was brought by Palestinian ambulance to a nearby checkpoint, and then transferred into Israel.

The theater's program director, Samia Staiti, said she saw the killing. "He was on his way to his car when a masked man stopped him, shot him and ran away."

Staiti said he had received death threats from people in the community who felt he was going against conservative Palestinian traditions. "They are trying to kill what Juliano tried to spread - peace and freedom. We will keep on going on," Staiti said.

Mer-Khamis was born in the Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth to a Jewish mother and an Arab Christian father. He served in the IDF as a paratrooper and portrayed Israeli Jews in many of his roles both in film and on stage.

In 2006, Mer-Khamis opened the Freedom Theater with Zakariya Zubeidi, the former military leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades in that West Bank city.

Zubeidi was appointed co-theater director in an attempt to subdue the ongoing threats voiced against both the institution and Mer-Khamis. The theater itself was torched twice in the past, and the threats persisted despite Zubeidei's appointment. Some of the criticism focused on the fact that the theater offered co-ed activities, despite prohibition in the Islamic moral code.

Objectors were also outraged when Mer-Khamis staged the play "Animal Farm," in which the young actors played the part of a pig, which Islam considers an impure animal. Mer-Khamis said he had planned to stage "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," a satire of armed resistance, but shelved the idea after someone smashed the window of his car.

Director Amos Gitai, who directed Mer-Khamis in the 2000 film "Kippur," said in response that he was "shocked" by the murder. "There are people like Juliano, who are radical people, try with their own bodies to serve as a bridge over the gorges of hate. And in Juliano's case it's real, he is a larger than life," Gitai said.

Director Avi Nesher, who directed Mer-Khamis in "Rage and Glory" in 1985, said he felt like a member of his family had died. "He was one of the most talented people I ever worked with," Nesher said, adding that "it is hard to imagine who would want to kill him and why."

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad also condemned the murder. "We cannot stand silent in the face of this ugly crime," Fayyad said in a statement. "It constitutes a grave violation that goes beyond all principles and human values, and it contravenes with the customs and ethics of coexistence."

Jenin governor Qadura Moussa called Mer-Khamis a great supporter of the Palestinian people. He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told him to bring those responsible for his death to justice.