Learning from Leila
By Ahmed Moor
Leila Khaled has led one of the most storied lives in modern Palestinian history, one that has caused her to become a living symbol for anti-colonial resistance the world over. Her time as a freedom fighter in her youth and unyielding dedication to the Palestinian national cause over the course of her life have been inspirational to generations of Palestinian fighters and activists.
As a child, Leila Khaled bore direct witness to the seminal event in Palestinian history - the Nakba - or Catastrophe in English. She was only four when Zionist forces ethnically cleansed Palestine in order to create the Jewish state. Like many of the 750,000 to 800,000 other refugees, her family fled north from the coastal city of Haifa to Tyre in Lebanon. Khaled, along with many of her generation spent their formative years in the squalor of a Palestinian refugee camp. The realities of refugee life instilled a deep political awareness in Khaled at a young age.
When she was fifteen, Khaled joined the Arab Nationalist Movement which was founded by George Habash in 1953. Several branches of the secular, socialist movement sprung up in various countries in the Arab world, one of which would later become the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1967. By 1968 the PFLP had trained one to three thousand guerrillas; Leila was one of these.
Prior to engaging in the Palestinian revolutionary movement full-time, Khaled attended the American University of Beirut (AUB) where she clashed with the non-activist administration. She only remained at the university for one year. In her autobiography she issued a resounding critique that would be echoed by many activists in the following decades:
“AUB was an intellectual graveyard for me. It was a ‘finishing’ school for the rich children of the Middle East and a social club for the colonial elite of the Arab world. Student government was banned and the university was run like an American corporation. Students whose fees were not paid in full were often forbidden to attend classes. The only permissible activities on campus were dances, parties, and plays. No open political clubs were allowed. There were no demonstrations, no political rallies, no guest speakers.”
By 1969, Khaled was ready to participate in the PFLP’s militant operations. In August of that year, she was one member of a team that hijacked TWA Flight 840. The airplane, which was en route from Rome to Athens, was diverted to Damascus where the hostages were freed. During the flight, Khaled famously instructed the pilot to fly over Haifa so that she could see it.
According to her autobiography, the purpose that underpinned the hijackings was to free political prisoners and raise awareness of the Palestinian national cause. She wrote: “Our minimum objective was the inscription of the name of Palestine on the memory of mankind and on the mind of every self-respecting libertarian who believes in the right of the subjugated to self-determination.…We were out to strike at the heart of the oppressor.”
The TWA hijacking elevated Khaled to icon status in the Palestinian cities and refugee camps which led her to decide to alter her appearance to regain her anonymity. Six plastic surgeries helped her to achieve her goal but only served to enhance her legendary reputation amongst Palestinians.
The plastic surgeries permitted the revolutionary to attempt a second hijacking. In 1970, Khaled hijacked a second airplane flying from Amsterdam to New York. Israeli air marshals were on El Al Flight 219, however, and they managed to capture the young revolutionary. The flight was rerouted to London where Khaled was arrested by British authorities. She was later released in a prisoner exchange, and the PFLP abandoned airplane hijackings as a tactic.
The decades following Khaled’s military efforts on behalf of the PFLP saw her develop into a heroic figure for many young Palestinians. Her example has inspired many thousands of revolutionaries over the years.
Today, she remains active in Palestinian national life and continues to be a prominent PFLP leader and critic of Palestinian divisions. In an interview with This Week in Palestine, Khaled expressed the view that the so-called peace process is only a scheme designed to undermine Palestinian national goals. “Now, there is no process in search of a settlement. The entire process was never about peace. It’s a political process that allowed the Israeli side to implement what it wanted in the West Bank: settlements, land confiscation in Jerusalem... Because of that, the Palestinians and Israelis will not reach a solution that guarantees the rights of the Palestinian people.”
“First of all, the Palestinian Authority is an outgrowth of the Oslo Process which we object to. We object to the process because it doesn’t address the core issues that the Palestinians are suffering from. Therefore, I don’t regard the Palestinian Authority as being representative of the Palestinian people,” she said. “It is an arm of the PLO designed to administer the welfare of the people, but practically, after operating for eighteen years, it has become evident that it is not a sovereign authority. It only administers the residents of the occupied lands. It cannot protect the people.”
The Palestinians have suffered a great number of hardships and setbacks during the past sixty years. But resilient and steadfast Palestinians like Leila Khaled have refused to bow under overwhelming pressure to relinquish their rights. In the aftermath of the Palestine Papers, young Palestinians can look to her legacy for a model of legitimate and dignified struggle in the face of adversity. Her revolutionary past and her present-day insistence on Palestinian rights continue to inspire young activists in both Palestine and the diaspora.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American activist and journalist based in Cairo. He has contributed to Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, the Boston Review, and other news media.