“Occupation is terrorism, to be a refugee is hell.
Having your homeland taken is a crime.
To be a freedom fighter is liberation.”
– Leila Khaled
I walked around the corner of a Palestinian refugee camp and came face to face with a prominent graffiti image I was familiar with but could not instantly identify. My Palestinian friend replied to my question: “That is Leila Khaled”. I was on my way to meet the host family where I would be staying during my visit to Palestine. A huge grin appeared on my face when I realised Leila was in fact the entrance to the home of my new family.
For me it has been hard to fully imagine a young girl aged only four, along with her family, being forcibly driven from their home due to events that were completely out of their control. Leila’s story started in Haifa as part of the creation of Israel in 1948 during the Nakba. She was part of a family that had nowhere to flee but Lebanon, along with thousands of other families – mainly women and children as the men were either sent to concentration camps, to labour or killed.
The story of the Nakba is never taught in history lessons except in Palestine; that is if a school is fortunate enough to exist and function. The Nakba was ethnic cleansing at its best and a catastrophic event. To this very day it remains denied by many. Even though the premeditated plan of 1948 had a single goal to remove, oppress and silence a race of people – a goal that remains to this day. It is only the method of doing so that has changed.
Leila Khaled uncovered her pre-1948 history of Palestine principally from books but thereafter she has known the history of her people through the bitterness of her own experience. Her birthday was celebrated as a day of national mourning. During her young years she did not celebrate a single birthday, making a pledge not to do so until she returned to her homeland. After they were forcibly removed from Haifa, the Khaled family home and business were seized and they were denied Lebanese citizenship, forced to remain in a state of exile. For the remaining eighteen years until his death, Leila’s father dreamed of returning to Palestine. Ever since, his daughter has attempted everything in her power to realise that dream, vowing not to fail her father or her nation.
In a sense, Leila was what some would label fortunate to grow up educated and without having to live within the confines of the refugee camps of Lebanon. She explains in her autobiography that these aspects shaped and developed her growing mind to lead her to where she is today. She acquired the necessary ideology to understand why class society must be abolished and replaced with socialism; she understood that her people’s fight against the Israelis is foremost an anti-imperialist one. Leila’s realisation of the need for revolution coincided with her developing understanding of feminism as she fought against oppression and for the role of women in a largely male dominated movement. She describes during one instance that the self-righteous reactionaries looked upon her as a “tradition-trampling” and “sex-enticing” individual. Leila called it a travesty of womanhood.
At the age of nineteen Khaled decided that she had no further prospects within Lebanon so departed for Kuwait in 1963. Not long afterwards the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was created. As the PLO became more bureaucratic and upper class more Palestinians rallied behind Fatah. A new movement was ignited and armed struggle was seen as the only way to salvation, liberation and self-respect.
Leila became an icon for the Palestinian struggle in 1969 when at 24, she was an operative in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the dramatic hijacking of a Boeing 707 plane. It was the first in a series of high-profile actions intended to put the Palestinian revolutionary struggle on the political map. Leila was part of a group that hijacked a Trans World Airline (TWA) flight from Rome to Athens. The plane was flown over Palestine where Leila saw her homeland for the first time since her exile. She saluted and thanked the Captain for his co-operation after the plane was landed in Syria but as he looked in astonishment, it was the co-pilot who replied, “You’re most welcome!” No one was injured throughout the hijacking (this was not part of the plan) but the plane was blown up afterwards. Khaled was able to make a speech afterwards telling the world about the crimes inflicted upon her people.
After the first hijack she was elected to the central committee of the Popular Front with increased obligations and was trained to commandeer an EL-AL flight. The following year the second hijack was attempted but the outcome was very different. Leila was caught and handed over to British police after the flight from Amsterdam to New York was diverted to London. Her comrade Patrick Arguello was martyred. They were both overpowered and beaten and trampled on until they were too weak to resist. Leila is convinced she only escaped death as she was needed for display purposes. She recalls her thoughts on that day as she stepped onto the Israeli plane and into the lion’s den but felt for the first time since 1948 that she would be going home again and felt proud of being a member of the Popular Front.
Today, 64 years after the Nakba, the Palestinian struggle remains a leading anti-imperialist struggle and Palestinian women play a huge part in the struggle to free themselves, their families, their communities, and their nation from imperialism. In an interview in 2009 from her home in Amman, Leila said, “Where there is occupation, there is always resistance. This resistance every time has its own shape and its own means. I think this situation (of calm) will not last. Our people have a very long experience of struggle and cannot accept that this situation will go on. One day it will break out again. In what way, I cannot say. But it will come.”
During the ‘Palestinian Revolutionaries on International Womens Day’ in 2010 Leila expressed how fundamental the women of Palestine are to uniting all Palestinians and how important they are to defending the hundreds of Palestinian women in Israeli prisons. She portrays them as the physical evidence of the torture and oppression of the occupation and conversely as the examples of courage, strength and hope from those women who give their life to Palestine.
Leila’s final message that day was aimed at the important role of Palestinian women who are adversely affected by the divisions and factions in the West Bank and Gaza. The justification for this is on the recognition that unity will strengthen the fight against the horror of this occupation. In this political moment the most important issue is that of unifying people to face the terrors of this occupation, and the main basis of unity must be fighting the occupation. It is important to understand the role of the masses in achieving this unity by putting pressure through democratic and civil means on the Palestinian factions.