The Martyrdom of Reason

By Andrea Dessi

Two men, one dream: justice, peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Both dedicated their lives to this dream and both ultimately had theirs taken in its pursuit. April has been a tragic month for all who fight for reason, dialogue and humanity in the face of injustice and oppression. On 4 April, Juliano Mer-Khamis - an Arab-Israeli political activist, director and actor - was brutally gunned down in Jenin. Ten days later, Vittorio Arrigoni - an Italian journalist and peace activist affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) - was abducted and later executed by a fringe group of Salafi militants in Gaza City.

These inexplicable acts of violence directed against two men, who for years were living among some of the worst affected Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip can find no apologetics. While on the one hand the murders have underscored the divisions existing between and within the various Palestinian factions, on the other they shed light on the deepening levels of frustration present among ordinary Palestinians who, after seventeen years of negotiations, are still lacking the freedom and independence they were promised in 1993. The murders have sent shockwaves throughout the global network of peace activists who identify with Palestine’s struggle, while for ordinary Palestinians feelings of shame and remembrance have mixed with denial as many refuse to believe the killings were carried out by members of their own communities. Vigils were held following both of the murders and hundreds gathered to give a last farewell to these men who, conscious of the risks, chose to work on the front lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bearing witness to the tragic misery of life under occupation. Both were deeply moved by the pervasive injustice they encountered and, motivated by a genuine belief in non-violent resistance, both were deeply committed to Palestine’s struggle for self-determination.

Vittorio had a long and intimate relationship with Palestine. He first arrived in Jerusalem in 2002 and immediately began campaigning with the ISM, taking part in various non-violent protests against Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. He was eventually placed on Israel’s “black list” and in 2005 was denied entry into the Jewish State from a border crossing in Jordan, beaten by Israeli soldiers and detained for eight hours. This experience increased Vittorio’s determination to return to Palestine and in 2008 he arrived in the Gaza Strip on board the first international aid ship to break Israel’s blockade. A vociferous critic of Israel, as well as both Hamas’s and Fatah’s tendency towards authoritarian rule, Vittorio frequently acted as a “human shield” on Gaza’s fishing boats which are harassed on a daily basis by the Israeli navy.

Vittorio’s blog, Guerrilla Radio, achieved international fame during Israel’s three-week bombardment and invasion of Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009 as his online posts were some of the only firsthand accounts emanating from the besieged coastal strip. During the war, he chose to accompany Gaza’s ambulances as they braved Israel’s bombs and his harrowing accounts of those sleepless nights were read by many across the globe. A collection of his blog posts was later published in book form in late 2009 under the title Gaza: Stay Human, a phrase with which Vittorio would end each of his online accounts and which has now become a slogan for people all across the world who wish to pay homage to his life’s struggle. The book was subsequently translated into four languages and today remains a testament to a man whose tireless struggle for human rights had gained him deep respect among Gaza’s population.

Vittorio’s execution at the hands of a small group of Islamist extremists has proven inexplicable to many. This gruesome act should however serve as a reminder to both Israel and the international community that their dual track policy of blockading Gaza while refusing to engage the Hamas-led government has utterly failed. At the end of the day, as was noted in a recent International Crisis Group report entitled Radical Islam in Gaza, it is precisely the most extremist elements that have benefitted from the Gaza’s “lack of exposure to the outside world”.  

Ten days earlier, in the West Bank city of Jenin, Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot five times by an unidentified gunman as he left a children’s theatre he founded in the city’s refugee camp. A prominent actor, director and political activist, Juliano - together with his mother Arna - had for years been supporting the children of Jenin with educational and cultural initiatives which they hoped could channel their emotions away from the deepening cycle of violence and into expressions of visual and artistic resistance.

Born in Israel in the northern city of Nazareth, Juliano came from a mixed Jewish-Palestinian family. He was accustomed to describing himself as “100 per cent Arab and 100 per cent Jewish” and, after a brief stint as a paratrooper in the Israeli army, Juliano chose to join his mother’s organisation, the Defence of Children under Occupation/Care and Learning. Together they founded the Stone Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp which would later form the backdrop to Juliano’s celebrated 2003 documentary film, Arna’s Children. The film follows Juliano’s mother and a group of ten Palestinian boys as they prepare and rehearse for one of the many shows held at the theatre. It spans a decade in the lives of its protagonists and ends with Arna’s touching death as she succumbs to cancer and the strong images of her life’s work, the Stone Theatre, being destroyed by the Israeli army when it invaded the camp in April 2002 during its military response to the Second Intifada. By late 2002, when Juliano first returned to Jenin, the viewer is confronted with the tragic aftermath of a battle that brought wholesale destruction to the camp. Out of the ten children Juliano had filmed, we now learn how six died during the Israeli siege or while conducting attacks within Israel, two had been arrested and were in Israeli jails and only two were still living and able to come out to greet Juliano, later taking him to the exact locations in the camp where their friends had fallen during the fighting. The film stands as a testament to the brutal reality of life under occupation, giving viewers a rare glimpse into the tragic upbringing of these children who, almost inevitably, come to be consumed by the pervasive insecurity that surrounds each and every one of them from the time of their birth.

Juliano, together with his wife and child, eventually moved to Jenin where in 2006 he reopened the theatre together with Zakaria Zubeidi, one of the two surviving members of Arna’s “10 children” and a former leader of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Juliano envisioned the Freedom Theatre as the beginnings of a “Third Intifada”, a struggle against injustice and oppression waged through cultural, moral and artistic means. “We are freedom fighters”, he used to say, and his struggle, like that of Vittorio’s calling to  “stay human”, must serve as inspiration for all who, tempted by violence, are obscuring humanity’s most cherished traits; reason, love and compassion.

So, in memory of both Juliano and Vittorio, let us continue our struggle to stay human.  


3 May 2011