Conversation with a revolutionary icon: What makes Leila Khaled still run?

Conversation with a revolutionary icon: What makes Leila Khaled still run?

Leila Khaled shot to a kind of global fame (or infamy) forty-five years ago, while she was still in her mid-twenties. During her trip to South Africa, J. BROOKS SPECTOR had a conversation with Leila Khaled, once the young Palestinian woman with the Kalashnikov.

The iconic photo from that moment when she posed with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and participated in aeroplane hijackings is now long in the past. Still, that black-and-white, faintly demure image lingers like the pale shadow on a palimpsest. And that image can still be seen, here and there, on old copies of the poster or the occasional T-shirt, even as the real person depicted has lived on for nearly a half century more in the meantime.

Leila Khaled is now seventy and a grandmother, a new grandmother at that, she says, beaming with pride about a five-month-old granddaughter. While she is carrying no picture of this grandchild on her, she insists she does have many of them on her laptop. Those are sent to her, almost reluctantly, by a son who protests that his daughter – her grandchild – really doesn’t change very much from one day to the next. These must be the same heartfelt responses of any grandmother – whether living in exile with a grim historical moment attached to her or simply in a home that has been the site for a lifetime of birthdays, festivals and just quotidian, everyday life. And just by the way, like any other couple, she is also intensely proud of her spouse, a health care professional, a poet, a columnist – and a novelist, she says. To round out the picture, she admits that she loves to cook big meals for family and friends. “I like to cook everything!” she adds.

But of course, Leila Khaled is not just any grandmother. She is, and has been, a lifetime member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and an aeroplane hijacker. Sitting at our interview, she wears a carefully placed scarf bearing those familiar red, green, black and white colours and the scarf shows a small map sketched on it. It is a map designed to show a country labelled Palestine – in place of another nation in the same geographical location, but more usually called Israel. Even Khaled’s clothing bears a message.

 Leila_Khaled today

Photo: Leila Khaled (Sebastian Baryli)

She is now in South Africa as part of what is described as a fundraising tour on behalf of the local version of Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions movement (BDS) – in support of the South African version of BDS’ campaign to make dinner tables particularly unwelcoming to those Israeli tomatoes on sale in neighbourhood Woolworths grocery stores, among other things. Not surprisingly, her ongoing visit is not without controversy. Various Jewish organisations in South Africa have roundly denounced her visit, of course, but then, so has the African Christian Democratic Party.

In fact, the wider rumblings about Khaled’s visit have included the irony of her warm embrace by various senior government officials (including scoring an official invitation for a seat at President Zuma’s State of the Nation speech); this in some very sharp contrast to the deep reluctance of the South African government to countenance a visit of the Dalai Lama, even for a conference of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, let alone a premier moment of South African political life. And her visit has come in the face of the country’s denunciations of all forms of terrorism. Of course, Khaled and her schedulers would deny she has been engaged in terrorism. Rather, from her vantage point, her actions, and those of the PFLP more generally, have come in the form of a strenuous effort to release a lost homeland from its occupiers.

As we size each other up, she is asked if, as is the case with so many other displaced Palestinian families, she continues to hold onto the key from her family’s former home in Haifa. There is a barely audible sigh – almost certainly not staged, not feigned – and she replies that key, left with her mother, along with so many photographs, personal documents, and other mementos for a family were all lost in fighting in years gone by in Lebanon, in the midst of a raid by the Israeli army. “They didn’t even want us to keep our archives. They stole some of it; they destroyed the photos of the family; letters I received from different parts of the world. I think they thought they would destroy our memory,” she says, barely raising her voice.

We talk about her politics as a member of the PFLP with its Marxist Weltanschauung and she says that living in Jordan, as she does, she has had to accept the Jordanian government’s restrictions on not speaking in public about political and social circumstances in Jordan, although she insists they now have an agreement she can talk about purely Palestinian issues in Jordan. This, she says, has come about as part of her efforts on behalf of the PFLP over the years, after her rise to international notoriety.

She is asked about those aeroplane hijackings so many years ago – and especially whether or not she still believes it was a useful, effective strategy. “I am asked about this all the time,” she says. Not surprisingly, perhaps. “Now, it is not of a use for hijacking. If anybody asks, now, I say I am against hijacking.” But contemplating this question in its historical context, she insists it was right for its time, then; right as a tactic to bring her cause to international prominence and to goad the world into doing something about the plight of her fellow refugees – “who are the Palestinians?” – a group she reckons has now reached a total of some six million people – what with all the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of those who left, back in 1948.

Regarding the hijackings, “I don’t regret it, I was honoured by that mission – for fifteen years we had an armed revolution and now the Intifada – I don’t regret that I had that mission. At the same time it was a clean operation; we didn’t hurt anybody – I had two hand grenades and I didn’t use them. I don’t know why they gave them to me, but they kept reminding me – we had very strict instructions: ‘Never hurt anybody.’ ”

After her participation in a second hijacking of an El Al airliner that was effectively foiled by on-board sky marshals in 1970, she was detained in Britain and eventually released as part of a prisoner exchange. Asked what would have happened if she had used the grenades, she insists she was committed to her movement and that she would not have made that mistake, even as her Nicaraguan-American co-hijacker was killed by the sky marshal.

“I think that tactic spread the idea that there was a Palestinian people.” But now, is it appropriate to employ different tactics? “Yes. I am very much involved in women’s issues and organising activities for my party and any other missions and it is all peaceful means.” Still, asked if she ever actually used a weapon, as opposed to that iconic poster pose, she says, “Yes of course, we used it all the time in the wars.”

Turning to that rather vexed question of the “right of return”, Khaled is asked just how many of her people should – or could – claim such a right in reality, should there be a peaceful settlement. (This question has been among the most intractable during the many different negotiations between Arabs and Israelis.) Khaled offers no compromise on this. She insists it must be everyone – all of the refugees, anywhere, regardless of whether they are actually among those who left – or are numbered among their descendants, generations later. The UN, after all, has issued IDs to signify their status as refugees – or the descendants of refugees, she says. There are still those people in those refugee camps and “it is their human right” to be able to return.

The conversation takes a detour. Turning to organisations like ISIS and Boko Haram, both of whom insist they are fighting on behalf of their religion, she is asked about her own reaction to the barbaric acts of such groups and what the world should do about them. In response, Khaled says, “First of all, IS, for an example, is an American industry. [I’m] positively sure about this. Since 2003 they established it after Al Qaeda – They did it themselves. Even Hillary Clinton recognised that. Because it wasn’t there, and they established it in Iraq; and now, they are supporting them through Turkey, with arms. Where these arms come from? From the arms industry, whether in the West or in Israel. They have tanks; they are now an army.” Challenged about where IS’ weapons come from; that IS’ weapons came from the retreating Iraqi army rather than any other secret source, Khaled insists that only some weapons came IS’ way. The rest, she is certain, must have come from America and its allies in the region. She argues IS was supported by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, America’s allies “who planned the thing”.

Gathering momentum, she expands her analysis. “But at the same time they have a mission to do. The Americans made a coalition to invade Iraq, and they did it, and they destroyed Iraq. The second step is to destroy the society. How to destroy it? To bring such tools in Iraq and Syria… At the same time they [the Americans and Zionists who created such groups] used religion, not the Christian religion, to show the brutal thing in Islam. They want to show that this is Islam.” (Asked about such assertions, the US Embassy replied that per America’s National Security Strategy, “we have undertaken a comprehensive effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS/ISIL.”)

Khaled goes further, saying, “How to stop this is to have a unity among different groups in the society. But unfortunately the division in the society is a secular one, Sunni against Shia, Turkey against the Kurds. This reminds me of history of Europe in the Hundred Years’ War between France and Britain, according to religion and the sect.

“As for Boko Haram, it is very easy in Africa to have a group to raise the emblem of religion and to work under it. It’s the same thing that whether American industry or not, it is supported. We are against it of course, of all these kinds of groups who use religion to face the people. It reminds me of the Zionists who use religion to occupy a country, of Zionism, of Nazism.”

Is her group religious or political? “It’s political.” By contrast, for Hamas, “it is from the religious angle – there are differences in ideologies, but now it is for the liberation stage. I don’t believe religion is a source of attracting people to one side. Because who was born Muslim, who was born Christian, who was born Jewish, is Muslim, Christian and Jewish” – so that while the religions may contradict, it is the politics that matters, she says. “For us it is the homeland we are looking for, it’s politics,” she adds.

And again, about the repatriation of most of those classified as refugees, say if five million people are repatriated, where are the people already there now supposed to go? Some 13 million people in that rather small space will make it rather crowded – something close to Manhattan’s population’s density. “No, not so crowded. They will throw some of them outside. Before 1948, when the Zionist movement called Jews to come to the ‘Promised Land’, some people said they were crazy – but it became practical. They kicked us and they brought them. If we are speaking of the numbers, it is not the issue; it is an issue of rights – Gaza’s very crowded. India is crowded and they are living there; China is like an explosion of people – and the growth rates are high. But in Palestine it is the right, maybe not all Palestinians will go there. But some other people will go to their homeland. No one can deprive someone of their homeland.”

And about the different tactics, political orientations and objectives of the various Palestinian groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, where does her group, PFLP, fit? She responds that Hezbollah is a “sister party, yes… Many differences afterwards, but now we are all in the trench of resistance and we should be there all together.” And what of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority? Would she feel warm towards them?

Khaled responds, “No! They are – I recognise Abbas as the president, but he did not learn from the negotiations. He is sticking to the idea that life is negotiations, but not for all issues – like the Palestinian issue. We learned from the negotiations of the ANC and the Vietnamese… The first thing they [the Vietnamese] said was ‘withdraw’ and when the Americans said no, the first time [negotiation session] was for five minutes, but they were on the ground changing the status quo. Nelson Mandela was in prison while they negotiated, but there was struggle on the ground. Now, Mr Abbas and Mr [Saeb] Erakat went to the Security Council and they asked for the end to occupation in 2017, but the change was not on the ground.”

Of Israeli domestic politics, conversation turns to the upcoming election there on 17 March. From the ensuing discussion is clear Khaled follows Israeli politics very, very closely. What is her view of the movement among the various Arab parties in the Israeli polity to come together for a unified slate in the upcoming election, as well as the Labour Party’s alliance with Zipi Livni’s smaller party? Is there any chance for the evolution of a new political landscape in Israel?

“No. I don’t think so. I think that society is still going to the right – and this government is a government of the settlers and will keep Netanyahu as prime minister as he is on their side – Look at the line of elections in the past twenty years.” She is rather dismissive of Arab participation in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), arguing that they have been part of a parliament that has been responsible for discriminatory rules against Arab Israelis. As a result, those Arab MPs effectively were part of an effort to create a Potemkin village of democracy in Israel.

And as for her purpose in being in South Africa at this point, she explains that it is to assist the BDS movement to be in solidarity with her Palestinians. As far as the Americans go, she has never visited the country.

(The US Embassy noted, “although she doesn’t appear to be listed individually on the official Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (‘SDN List’) which is part of the Dept. of Treasury’s ‘Office of Foreign Assets Control,’ she is a member of the Politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) which is on the SDN List as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisation.’ Being on this list means any US person or entity is prohibited from engaging in financial transactions…the PFLP remains on a terror watch list,” although they would not confirm her presence – or absence – on any no-fly list.)

Further, she acknowledges that she really has no contact with Americans, even though representatives of the Palestinian Authority like Saeb Erakat do meet Americans, of course, as part of the negotiations process and in other forums. Having said that, she seems dismissive of America’s role in any future Middle East peace deal. She argues, instead, that the real problem is that the US simply does not wish to end the Israeli occupation (presumably of the West Bank, although she would probably say publicly of the entire area from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River). Moreover, she calls attention to the fact that some in the US Congress wish to cut off the current US appropriation of $400 million worth of aid to Palestinians.

Our conversation ends on a sombre note as she asks the writer what he would do if he were suddenly dispossessed of his home: Move on, accept it, fight back, and live on in a soup of anger and agonies? Yes, it’s a question. But one also wishes she would similarly contemplate the circumstances of those Middle Eastern Jews who had similarly fled their homes in the 1940s and 50s, but that inevitably would have become yet another debate over whether these people had fled from lands from Morocco to Yemen, or had been enticed to come to Israel by nefarious outside forces.

And so, we part company. At the end, the writer is left to contemplate the mix of Marxist thinking, conspiracies in international affairs, and nationalist fervour that motivates Leila Khaled, and generates her worldview. This is a place where everything that happens is either part of a Western plan to oppress her people further and thwart their just aspirations – or supports their legitimate aims. And she, perhaps, was left to consider whether she had met a sympathiser or antagonist in this earnest conversation. DM

Photo: An elderly Palestinian man passes by a section of Israel’s separation barrier in Bethlehem, 21 December 2011, carrying a mural of Leila Khaled. EPA/ATEF SAFADI


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