The Interview: Leila Khaled
Leila Khaled is the first known woman to lead an airplane hijacking. Her portrait as a young woman, smiling and holding an AK-47, became a symbol of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Born in Haifa in 1944, she became a refugee during the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, of 1948, which resulted in the dispossession of an estimated 750,000 refugees and destruction of hundreds of villages and towns with the founding of the state of Israel. Khaled has been able to see Haifa only once more during her life – in 1969, when, as a member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, she hijacked a plane and told the pilot to fly over her hometown.
How did your involvement in politics begin? When did you decide to join the armed struggle?
After we were driven out [of Palestine in 1948], we settled in the south of Lebanon, in Tyre, as refugees. It was a miserable life. We were deprived of everything. My first school was a tent. I didn’t like anything there, I missed Palestine. I was convinced we had to go back to our house. I was young, but I asked myself, ‘why do we have to live like this?’
I began to be involved in political issues when my brothers and sisters were in the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM). Our dream was to go back to Palestine. We had to defend our right to return, so we went to demonstrations and called for the right to hold arms.
In 1967, the Naksa [the defeat of Arab armies in the Six Day War] gave us motivation to take up arms and participate in the revolution. The ANM decided to establish the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and I joined as soon as it was formed. I felt we had to take the cause into our own hands. We couldn’t rely on the Arab regimes to take us back to our land, we had to depend on ourselves.
Why did you hijack a plane?
Our goal was to release our prisoners, especially women, and to raise awareness internationally about the Palestinian cause. We wanted the world to know we are not just refugees who need aid and live in tents, we are a people with a cause.
I didn’t care if I was the first woman hijacking a plane or not, I just wanted to do something for our cause. Of course, we knew we weren’t going to liberate Palestine with hijackings, but it was a way to get international attention.
I had a hand grenade in my pocket and a pistol. Then I met my [PFLP] comrade, Salim Essawi. We had clear instructions not to hurt anyone. I told the pilot I was the new captain and showed him the hand grenade. I told him: ‘We are Palestinians from PFLP. We are refugees and the name of our unit is Che Guevara’.
When we started reaching Palestine, I asked the pilot to take us to Haifa. My comrade was also from there. To this moment, I can’t describe the feeling, the excitement of seeing what was taken from us. Then we diverted the plane to Syria, to Damascus.
I apologized to the passengers, I told them I was very sorry if they were afraid. I told them they were safe. We didn’t hurt anyone. The passengers were all released and went back to their homes – but we didn’t go back to our homes, we are still refugees.
Israel, the United States and the European Union consider the PFLP a terrorist organization. What is terrorism to you?
Terrorism is occupation. To steal our land and our houses, and to make us refugees. Zionist gangs committed massacres, they eradicated more than 465 villages to build settlements.
Every day, you see people being killed in Palestine. The Israeli army is shooting to kill. Let’s think of the journalist, Shireen Abu Aqleh, she was killed just because she spoke about the reality on the ground. What we see is daily violence, but we are also seeing a new intifada in the occupied territories.
Is there a role for violence in the struggle for a better world?
We don’t have another way, we don’t have the luxury of choice. We can’t face all this injustice with just demonstrations and peaceful means. Freedom requires sacrifices. We are sad for the casualties. But for Palestinians, the line between life and death is very narrow.
All people under occupation revolt for their freedom, against colonial oppression. International law says people under occupation have the right to defend themselves, even by armed struggle. This is a legal way to fight against the violence of occupation. We saw how the world dealt with Ukrainians, but they forgot about us. The Nakba is ongoing.
Did becoming a mother change your way of fighting and your perception of the struggle? What has been your experience as a woman in a movement that is predominantly male?
In the beginning, I was with the military faction of the PFLP. But I also had to work as a woman and speak about the rights of women. The revolution is for everyone, even when we are mothers. [Being a] revolutionary doesn’t mean that I only fight. I have a right to love and to be loved, to become a mother and a grandmother.
How do you imagine a free Palestine?
The key for liberation is the land and the return of refugees. We want to establish a democracy where all have the same rights and duties. We want to do this with the people who are there – with Israelis. This is a humane and democratic solution and it can be established.
I had a Jewish friend, my neighbour, her name was Tamara. We used to play together. We knew [our neighbours] were Jews but they were also Palestinian. [When we fled] I asked my mum if Tamara was coming with us, and my mother said no. I don’t know where Tamara is now. But she should remember me, I was her friend.
What would be the first thing you would do if you were able to go back to Haifa?
I would run to see if our house is still there. I imagine people chanting, dancing. And I would sleep under an orange tree. I used to hate oranges because when I wanted to pick them from our relatives’ trees in Lebanon, my mother scolded me and said ‘those are not our oranges, our oranges are in Palestine’.