Mer Khamis murder: Palestinians must reinforce freedom of expression

The murder of Juliano Mer Khamis was a national tragedy for Palestinians that drew shock and outrage. However, it is imperative that we learn from this horrific event that the rights to freedom of art and expression must be protected and upheld at all costs.

Since the beginning of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, artists have played a vital role in Palestinian society. Palestinian artists have helped create community for Palestinians in diaspora, and have drawn international attention to the Palestinian cause.  Palestinian artists have also inspired resistance at home, taking leadership roles in every Palestinian intifada.

From Ibrahim Tokan to Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poets and writers have provided a motivating force for thousands of activists, to the extent that their influence has frequently attracted the attention and retaliation of Israel. Ghassan Kanafani is perhaps the most well-known Palestinian writer to be assassinated by Israel in 1972 because of his writing and involvement in the Popular Front. However, despite the political differences between Palestinian writers and despite internally criticizing Palestinian society, there was an unwritten code that no Palestinian faction should harm a Palestinian artist. Except for a few rare exceptions, this red line was respected:  interfering with the freedom of expression of Palestinian artists was always a red line that was not to be crossed.

In the recent years, however, the Palestinian community has increasingly faced threats against the freedom of art. Academics have been attacked and even in some cases fired because of their political and religious beliefs. The Freedom Theater in Jenin was torched twice. In 2007, Hamas Minister of Education Naser El-Shaer decided to ban a Palestinian cultural book from school libraries because of references to sexual issues. The attempt failed, though, when thousands of educators demonstrated the decision and El-Shaer was forced to change his decision. The red line was shaken, but remained in place.

Last week, all this changed. On April 4th, the red line was shattered by the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis. His death shocked Palestinian society, and many Palestinians did not know how to respond to it. Some condemned the murder, others promised to take revenge on the killers, and some chose to bury their heads in the sand by blaming Israel for Juliano’s death. Palestinians organized demonstrations in Ramallah and Jenin, condemned the murder and have asked for concrete steps to guarantee the safety of artists and the continuation of freedom of expression in Palestine.

Despite the Palestinian reaction to Juliano’s murder, these protests were disappointing. The response of the Palestinian community was not as powerful as the protest against El-Shaer’s attempt to ban the book, and it seems that many Palestinians are willing to justify crossing the red line. Are Palestinian pro-democracy and freedom groups too busy fighting the occupation to realize that they might be losing another important struggle within Palestinian society? Ending the occupation will be a bittersweet victory if we end up sacrificing our freedom of expression, thereby losing an important piece of our culture in the process.

The struggle for Palestinian freedom is a two-front war.  On one front we must fight the occupation, but on the other front we must counter the efforts of some Palestinian politicians who want to enslave us from within. The assassination of Juliano was a message to other Palestinian artists: don’t raise your head, and don’t criticize the status quo. Those who killed Juliano are trying to kill the Palestinian spirit of creativity and silence Palestinian freedom of expression. They are enemies to the Palestinian cause. If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take the mission of finding the killers seriously, then we are likely to see this kind of cultural terrorism grow in the West Bank.

Now that the red line has been crossed, Palestinians have a tough battle ahead. In this situation, the best way for Palestinians to honor Juliano is not by mourning and weeping but rather by duplicating the Freedom Theater in every Palestinian city in the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, Palestinians must re-draw the red line, making it twice as difficult to cross, because the best way to fight the forces of autocracy and censorship is to shout out loud that we will not let bullets kill the ideas of our artists and writers.

Juilano Mer Khamis was an artist, but he was a fighter as well. In fact, if Juliano was still alive today, I believe he would tell us to remember the words of another Palestinian artist named Samih El Kasem:

“The day I’m killed,
my killer, rifling through my pockets,
will find travel tickets:
One to peace,
one to the fields and the rain,
and one
to the conscience of humankind.

Dear killer of mine, I beg you:
Do not stay and waste them.
Take them, use them.
I beg you to travel.”

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