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Animus and Inversion: the Guardian turns the world upside down again

This is a guest post by Alan Johnson

On April 3 2011 Juliano Mer Khamis, the half-Jewish, half-Palestinian Israeli director of Jenin’s Freedom Theatre was assassinated by masked gunmen who shot him five times in the head. In today’s Guardian the playwright Howard Brenton leaves his readers with the impression that Israel may have done the deed.

He does this in three ways. First by creating uncertainty about the identity and motivations of the killers. He claims that ‘reports vary as to the details’ about who was responsible. Second, by establishing a narrative and a protagonist. The murder is made to appear as the opening salvo in a campaign waged by Israel against the theatre: ‘From that shocking day there has been what can only be seen as a systematic harassment of the Freedom theatre by the Israeli army.’ Third, by plain old finger-pointing. He ends the article with this appeal: ‘Israel… stop your attacks on the Freedom theatre and release its artists from your prisons.’

Now this is odd. For it is accepted that Palestinian extremists were responsible for the murder. More: it is accepted that beginning long before the murder a concerted campaign was waged against the theatre by Islamist militants. It is accepted that the murder was a culmination of this campaign.

Brenton has literally twisted the story inside out. To do so, here is just some of what he (and his Guardian editors) had to ignore.

First, that the Guardian itself reported at the time of the killing that Mer Khamis ‘had received threats for his work in Jenin’ from Palestinians; and that ‘in addition to threats, fire bombs were thrown at the theatre.’

Second, that the Guardian itself reported then that ‘[Mer Khamis’s] bringing together of young men and women angered conservative Muslim elements in Jenin.’

Third, that Palestinians at the time were clear about who had killed Mer Khamis. For example, the Guardian reported the views of Alaa Eddin Saadi who lived next to the theatre. “I don’t think he was killed because he was Jewish. Some people were angry with the liberal values he was promoting at the theatre.”

Fourth – this from the left-wing Ha’aretz report written at the time by Jack Khoury, Avi Issacharoff, and Anshel Pfeffer – that before the murder Fatah militants had sought to intervene in this Islamist campaign of intimidation. One Fatah militant, Zakaria Zubeidi, a leader of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, ‘was appointed co-theater director in an attempt to subdue the ongoing threats voiced against both the institution and Mer-Khamis.’ The reason Zubeidi stepped in was because ‘the theatre itself was torched twice in the past.’ But it didn’t work: ‘the threats persisted despite Zubeidei’s appointment.’

Fifth, that the specifically Islamist character of the campaign against the actor was common knowledge. Again from Ha’aretz: ‘Some of the criticism focused on the fact that the theater offered co-ed activities, despite prohibition in the Islamic moral code.’ Khoury, Issacharoff, and Pfeffer also noted that ‘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.’

Sixth, that even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas knew who the killers were. ‘Jenin governor Qadura Moussa … said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told him to bring those responsible for his death to justice’ reported Ha’aretz. Abbas plainly did not have in mind the governor of Jenin bringing the Israeli government to justice.

Seventh, that even the Palestinian police were clear about the identity of the killers. Ha’aretz informed its readers (something proper newspapers do) that ‘Jenin police chief Mohammed Tayyim said Mer-Khamis was shot five times by masked Palestinian militants.’

This latest episode raises the following question about the editorial control over Guardian commentators when it comes to Israel: is there any? Or is there rather a culture that says if it is saying something bad about Israel then it’s probably true and there is no need to check it out first.

Alan Johnson works at BICOM. He writes here in a personal capacity.