Jenin’s Freedom Theatre marks anniversary of founder’s murder

Juliano Mer-Khamis
(photo courtesy Freedom Theatre)

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis — the Israeli actor and co-founder of Palestine’s Freedom Theatre — who died in ahail of gunfire from still-unknown assailants on April 4, 2011, just a few steps from the door of his beloved children’s drama centre in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin.

Juliano’s murder has been blamed on radical Islamists who may have opposed the Freedom Theatre’s co-educational curriculum of dance, drama, street art and photography, and the elements of cooperation and non-violent peace-building inherent in the joint Palestinian-Israeli, grassroots project.

The focus of today’s sombre commemoration of Juliano’s life and death is the shameful absence of justice, as his friends and the many supporters of the Freedom Theatre stage a demonstration outside the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, demanding more action in bringing the murderer(s) to justice.

Community theatre companies in the Israeli cities of Jaffa and Haifa are staging special performances to mark the anniversary in solidarity with the Freedom Theatre.

Arna Mer-Khamis
(photo courtesy

A ruminative month lies ahead for Jenin Refugee Camp, where Juliano’s mother, the Israeli peace activist Arna Mer-Khamis, founded the original Freedom Theatre in the early 1990s. April marks the ten-year anniversary of the Israeli military destruction of the camp, a two-week bombardment and bloody demolition campaignthat proved to be the most infamous flank of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, a military offensive designed to crush the Palestinian intifada in the spring of 2002.

Sometimes referred to as the “Battle of Jenin,” the assault left 23 Israeli soldiers and more than 50 Palestinian civilians and resistance fighters dead (and hundreds wounded and permanently maimed), including several who as children had participated in Arna Mer-Khamis’s original Freedom Theatre.

In the wake of the destruction of the camp and the 2003 film Arna’s Children — which chronicled the lives of some of the Palestinian children from the Freedom Theatre, and also of Arna herself (she died of cancer in 1995) — Juliano and several Israeli and Palestinian activists re-started the Freedom Theatre, which for the past eight years has been training Palestinian refugee children to embrace art and creative self-expression as a means of resisting the Israeli occupation and building a new Palestinian society.

Zakaria Zubeidi (photo by Natasha Mozgovaya)

Perhaps the most famous of Arna’s children is Zakaria Zubeidi, who grew up a child effectively imprisoned within the squalor of Jenin Refugee Camp, participated in the original Freedom Theatre and then, as a young man, years after the death of Arna and the disrepair of the theatre, joined the Palestinian violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, becoming a bomb-maker and a leader of theAl-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade.

After surviving the assault on Jenin and landing on Israel’s most-wanted list, Zakaria renounced violence and embraced Juliano Mer-Khamis as his mentor, helping to found the Freedom Theatre anew. In 2007 Israel granted him amnesty, though as of December 2011 that amnesty is revoked.

He remains in hiding and wanted by Palestinian security forces, such as those who will have a front-row view of today’s demonstration in Ramallah, where activists face down the Palestinian (and, by extension, Israeli) powers-that-be, demanding justice for those who have died to build peace in Israel and Palestine.