To Juliano and Vittorio with love

The deaths of the two activists reveal a small but hugely destructive deformity in Palestinian society.

Juliano Mer Khamis
Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni was killed while working for the International Solidarity Movement [Reuters]

Juliano Mer-Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni were humanists who believed in the struggle of the Palestinian people. They braved the Israeli occupation and were prepared to sacrifice their lives for freedom.

But unlike International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activists Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, who were murdered by Israeli occupation forces as they tried to shield Palestinian families, Juliano and Vittorio were killed by members of the Palestinian communities they had come to know and trust. The first killed by unknown, presumably Palestinian, assailants; the second by Palestinian fanatics.

On April 4, masked gunmen shot Juliano in front of the Freedom Theatre he had founded in the Jenin refugee camp. Ten days later Vittorio, an ISM activist, was abducted and later found strangled to death in an apartment in the Gaza Strip.

Solidarity activists have traditionally been embraced, virtually adopted even, by their host communities. That they should be killed by those they were trying to defend generated shockwaves that reached deep into the heart of Palestinian communities across the world.

Many Palestinians would like to believe that the two men were killed by Israeli collaborators. After all it is Israel – which has never hidden its distaste for activists, whether Israeli or otherwise – that benefits the most from intimidating members of the solidarity movement.

Solidarity activists are witnesses to Israeli crimes against Palestinians; many of them have become chroniclers of the Palestinian struggle, powerful voices spreading the word across the world. They usually weave strong and intimate ties with the people with whom they share their daily lives – the triumphs and defeats, joys and sorrows.

Juliano and Vittorio became an integral part of the Palestinian community, bonding with those they lived among. Despite taking very different paths to their destination, they shared a commitment to non-violent resistance and a just peace.

Juliano’s story

Born to a Palestinian Christian father and a Jewish mother, Juliano became a well-established Israeli actor.

His father, Saliba Khamis, was a member of the Israeli Communist Party, a group which, during the first two decades of Israel’s existence, gave a voice to the Palestinians who had remained after the Nakba. At stages in their lives, the Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Qassem belonged to the party, which produced some great Palestinian leaders, including Tawfiq Ziad, the courageous mayor of Nazareth. Ziad wrote the famous poem-turned-song I’m calling you, which reaffirmed the Palestinian identity of Israeli Arabs.

Juliano’s youth was typical of that of many young Israeli men – he joined the Israeli army before embarking on a career in the Israeli film industry. He initially seemed detached from his Palestinian roots but, under the influence of his Jewish mother who spent much of her later years working with Palestinian children, he was transformed.

Arna Mer-Khamis, Juliano’s mother, became involved with Palestinians during the first intifada. She came to understand how deeply traumatised Palestinian children were by the occupation and started programmes that aimed to heal them through art and, in particular, acting.

She established a theatre in the Jenin refugee camp, where her bonds with many of the local children were such that they became known as ‘Arna’s children’. There were 10 with whom she was particularly close.

Years later, Juliano went to Jenin to search for Arna’s 10 ‘children’. All of them had become Fatah militants and local heroes during the infamous Israeli siege of the camp. Six had been killed, two captured and the remaining two were wanted by Israel. The resulting film, Arna’s children, was a deeply moving tribute to both his mother and the people of the camp.

Arna died in 1994 and in 2006 Juliano decided to continue her work by establishing a theatre with Zakaria Zubeidi, one of ‘Arna’s children’ and a former leader of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

Juliano, or Jul as he was known, became much loved by Palestinians and his Freedom Theatre became an act of cultural resistance in the face of Israeli efforts to obliterate Palestinian identity.

Vittorio’s story

Far from Palestine and the struggles of life under occupation, Vittorio grew up near Italy’s scenic Lake Como. But even in that seemingly idyllic location, the young man was deeply influenced by his family’s history: His grandfather and grandmother were members of the resistance against Italy’s fascist regime during World War II.

It was when he moved to Jerusalem that Vittorio found his own cause in the Palestinian struggle.

Vittorio Arrigoni was held captive for three days before he was killed in Gaza [Reuters]

He later joined the ISM, many members of which risked their lives, particularly during the second intifada, while acting as human shields for Palestinian civilians.

In 2008, Vittorio’s commitment took him to Gaza on board one of the Free Gaza Ships that sought to break the Israeli siege of the Strip.

Once there, he placed himself at the service of the community and quickly became popular, particularly with the local children.

He had the word Moqawama, Arabic for resistance, tattooed on his arm, but remained an ardent pacifist.

Vittorio, or Vik as people called him, was known for sailing with Palestinian fishermen in an attempt to protect them from the Israeli navy.

Like other ISM activists he spent time in an Israeli jail, sustained injury and was once deported to Italy – only to find his way back to the people he loved in Palestine.

He wrote a column for the leftist Italian Il Manifesto newspaper and kept a blog chronicling the struggle that ended with the signature “let us stay human”.

Vittorio was determined to preserve his humanity and the humanity of others in the tradition of a true humanist – crossing all religious, ethnic and racial fault lines. When his captors called him an “infidel”, they drove a dagger into the heart of the Palestinian people.

To ‘stay human’

Juliano and Vittorio, two people whose hearts were full of love for the Palestinians, had to witness hate in the last moments of their lives. Juliano faced his masked killers for just seconds, while Vittorio spent longer looking into the eyes of prejudice and zealotry.

I wonder what they must have thought. What shock must have gripped Juliano in his last moments? What must have happened to Vittorio’s loving heart as his tormentors treated him as “the enemy”?

Many tears have been shed and will continue to be shed for the two men. Poems have been written and songs are sure to follow.

Our only consolation is that both Juliano and Vittorio were part of an active popular Palestinian resistance that will continue to grow and spread. Their cause remains alive.

But Palestinians must now face the fact that these murders expose a societal deformity and distortion which may be slight in size but which is huge and highly destructive in its impact.

It is not enough to capture the perpetrators. The challenge is bigger and harder. The challenge is now to make sure that Palestinian society and the individuals within it do not lose their humanity.

To “stay human” was Vittorio’s appeal at the end of every blog – and that is now the only way that we can honour him and Juliano.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.