LEILA KHALED: Icon of Palestinian Liberation. Sarah Irving. 2012. Pluto Press, UK. ISBN 978-0-7453-2951-2

Sarah Irving Cover LetterReview by Theresa Wolfwood

“I believe in my people and I believe that we have people all around the world supporting us.”

While most women in the late sixties worried about the length of their miniskirt, one of their contemporaries was worried about the occupation of her homeland and the forced exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, including herself. Leila Khaled became famous for her airplane hijacking; famous as a woman and as a Palestinian woman.

The author based her research for the book on records of the past and Khaled’s own stories told in a series of interviews. In those early times Khaled was dedicated to the armed struggle to regain her country; a militant in a society where women still had traditional roles. She was a member of the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a clandestine guerrilla organization whose aim was its name. Hijacking was a new tactic in those days and the leadership of the PFLP saw it as a way to publicize its cause.  At that time, few people outside the region had heard of Palestinians and their situation so as the author writes, “To movement members like Leila Khaled hijackings brought the Palestinian people to the world’s attention, and it is true that a few people had their interest sparked enough to read further, to acquire books like Khaled’s own 1973 autobiography, and to set these terrifying and disruptive acts into some kind of wider political context. But for many, it simply turned Palestinians from a group of people they had never heard of into a group of people they associated irrevocably with the word “terrorist.””

 A stereotype that lingers on, in spite of waves of non-violent resistance and efforts by Palestinians to gain rights through legal and international institutions. A growing international solidarity movement today recognizes that Palestinians are not terrorists and need our support in their just struggle. But maybe those early actions helped us to understand and helped Palestinians to create the grass roots non-violent resistance that followed the hijacking.

The book reveals vivid personal details of Khaled’s hijacking experiences.  In August, 1969, she and others hijacked an American passenger plane en route from Rome to Athens; she made the pilot to fly low over Haifa, her birthplace, a place to which so far she has been unable to return. No wonder the right of return is a central part of her political position. The plane was forced to land in Syria and when all the people had left it, the PFLP blew it up. On the bus with the passengers to the terminal, she passed out sweets and cigarettes, still a precious commodity for her. Even after the hijacking, one passenger is quoted as saying,” I don’t understand. Who are the Palestinians?”

She was released by the Syrians after being detained for a short time and returned to her base group in Lebanon. She became a celebrity as an “Audrey Hepburn” look-a-like after her photo was released and sent around the world. The media became part of the struggle; until then global media had ignored Palestinians. She insists still that individual celebrity is not her aim or the aim of the PFLP and reminds readers that she is part of a larger group. After the publicity she underwent much painful plastic surgery to disguise her famous image as she prepared for her next assignment.

In September, 1970, Khaled and her Nicaraguan companion tried to hijack an Israeli plane en route to New York, one of a number of planned attacks that day. The hijackers were recognized, her companion was killed by Israel gunmen on board and the plane landed at Heathrow where Leila was jailed for a short time before her release as part of a prisoner exchange. She recalls her time in England with humour and fondness and still returns to speak at events there. The PFLP ended their tactic of hijacking then.

She talks openly about other women, the armed resistance to Israel, the difficulties of being a woman in a guerrilla movement, her time in Russia as a student, her failed first marriage and her second marriage, both within the PFLP. She became pregnant in 1982, a dangerous time in Beirut, not long after her sister had been murdered in a case of mistaken identity- they thought they were killing Leila. When she became pregnant she continued to work but in a different capacity with women’s groups until she and her doctor husband were sent to Syria where she had her first son; then she had to help organize nurseries, daycare and other facilities as PFLP members became parents.

Western feminists are quoted as criticizing Khaled for putting her nationalism before feminism; she says she was a fighter for liberation first and foremost. Gender issues did become part of her life and the PFLP when children became part of the daily reality of the group and many changes had to be accepted by the group and the men in it. While living in the camps she recognized the particular needs of women living under occupation and in camps.

As a representative of the Union of Palestinian Women Khaled began to travel in the 70s and 80s to women’s forums; she became aware of many struggles like lesbian rights that she had never considered before. She also met supportive Israelis at international gatherings and began to see the extent of global support for Palestine. Resistance began to take new forms like the intifadas in occupied Palestine.

 “…when there is occupation, there will always be resistance.”

In 1992 she and her family moved to Jordan; she had difficulties getting into that country and faced problems settling her family and finding a new role for herself in a country whose government is hostile to her cause.  She travelled abroad and as her children grew up she took them with her sometimes so they would understand her responsibilities.

Across the world she became, and still is, an icon of resistance; years later, people still want to meet and interview her; she is humbled when parents who name their daughters after her.  In her interviews she reflects on new developments, the rise of support around the world and the new importance of social movements; she travels and speaks at World Social Forums and other solidarity gatherings. She welcomes genuine support from Israelis that accept the right of return, land rights and the end to occupation.

She continues to be active within Palestinian political organizations and voices her criticism of the Palestinian Authority for its cooperation with the Israeli government.  She is quoted at length on the new developments in Gaza and the West Bank – she also voices her doubts about Islamists and suicide bombers.

This engrossing book is a readable blend of history and personal recollections and opinions; there is no separating Khaled from the struggle of her people. The struggle continues and Khaled does not intend to retire until she can return to Haifa. “When I return to Palestine, I will sleep under an orange tree for three days.”

She is an icon not only of liberation, but of determination and hope.

“I say a homeland is worth all we have to implement, to achieve the goals of our struggle. …But unless the core issues, the land and the refugees, are dealt with in a just way this conflict will go from one generation to another. All these elements of the struggle and the conflict will gather together. It will work itself out”

“I don’t think it will be in my lifetime, but for other generations.”

Photo: Khaled on far right, with friends in Jordan, 2008          

 Khaled on far right, with friends in Jordan, 2008

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