She escaped to Lebanon from her hometown, Haifa, hoping to return soon. She never was able to go back and her quest for a lost homeland set her on a path that led to being branded as a dangerous terrorist by the United States and other Western intelligence agencies.
21 July 2003
United Press International
Interview: Palestinian Leila Khaled
by Sana Abdallah
Leila Khaled is considered the world's first woman hijacker. She is revered by some and hated by others, but is known across the world for her daring deeds.
Leila, as she is known across the Arab world, was only 4 years old during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The war led to the creation of the state of Israel and also rendered her homeless.
Leila's involvement with armed Palestinian groups began when she was only 15 years old and joined the Arab Freedom Movement under the influence of her older siblings. In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, she joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP, a Marxist revolutionary group established in 1967, has a place on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Arguello was quickly shot by Israeli security staff on the plane and was later executed with four bullets in his back on the aircraft. Khaled was overwhelmed by crew and passengers alike and was beaten up until the plane landed in London. The British authorities managed to break her loose from Israeli hands, and arrested her. She remained in British custody until she was flown to Cairo on Oct. 1, 1970. She soon resumed her activities.
The refugee became an international figure — admired in the Arab world and despised in Israel and the West — when she took part in hijacking TWA Flight 840 from Rome to Athens on Aug. 29, 1969.
With a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other, the 25-year-old hijacker instructed the American pilot to fly over Haifa to see it for the first time since she left, then landed in Damascus. After securing the evacuation of the passengers, who listened to her speak about Palestine, her fellow hijacker blew up the cockpit of the Boeing 707. All the passengers were released, except for six Israelis the Syrian authorities took and later exchanged for 13 Syrian soldiers.
Her second and last hijacking did not go as smoothly. On Sept. 6, 1970, she and San Francisco-born Nicaraguan Patrick Arguello, armed with pistols and hand grenades, tried to capture Israel's El Al flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York as two other hijackings were being carried out by the PFLP.
Her office wall is decorated with a poster of Abu Ali Mustafa, the PFLP leader who was assassinated last year by Israeli helicopter gunships. She smokes French Gauloises cigarettes because she is boycotting U.S. products.
Since then, Leila has put on extra pounds, but her smooth dark face does not give away her 59 years. She has been living in Amman, Jordan, since 1989, along with her physician husband, Fayez Rashid, and two teenage sons, Bader and Bashar.
In an interview with United Press International at her office in Amman's middle-class commercial district of Jabal Hussein, she looked back at her life without regrets.
Q. How did you start your activities with the PFLP?
A. I was in Kuwait working as a teacher at the time. I tried to join the training camps set up in Jordan, but I was asked to remain in Kuwait to organize and establish cells. I did that for two years. Then I left and joined the camps for military training. When the PFLP asked me to return (to Kuwait), I insisted on staying, because I did not want to continue leading a normal life.
Q. Why didn't you want a "normal" life?
A. I primarily had dreams about taking our cause into our own hands. Also I had sisters and comrades in Palestine in Israeli jails and I thought those of us abroad should not be different than those inside. The launch of the Palestinian revolution caused me to take up arms for the liberation of Palestine. I came to Jordan and joined the training camps in 1969. After that, I was chosen to take part in the first airline hijacking of TWA.
Q. What were your feelings when you were given that first assignment?
A. For me, it was ultimate happiness and a great honor to be chosen, to the point that I couldn't believe it. When they told me I was to go on a mission, I thought: "Is it possible they are asking me to do this?" This dream of mine was becoming a reality. And I was imagining how I would finally see Palestine, because part of the plan was to fly over Palestine. It was as if this operation would liberate Palestine for me. I felt pride and honor to be part of this operation, which I saw as important and necessary.
Q. What was the objective of that operation?
A. The objective was to free prisoners, and to bring the world's attention to the Palestinian cause, since the world was dealing with and seeing Palestinians as just refugees who need humanitarian relief, not as a political cause of a people who aspire for their rights and to return to their land. So I had convictions that made the act easy. It was also a consolidation of the PFLP's view on women: That she is able to be equal to a man in the national struggle, and therefore can carry out any mission that can be done by a man.
Q. What memory sticks out most in your mind from the hijacking?
A. I remember when we reached the Palestinian coast, I said to myself: "I don't care if I die or get killed now." But we had a responsibility, which was the safety of the passengers and crew. Israeli aircraft surrounded the plane to prevent it from landing, because I was asking the pilot to land in the airport there. He was descending, but he didn't intend to land. At the moment, I thought that this enemy was not invincible, after all. I felt that with a simple operation, we could defeat them like they subjugated us. One of the things I did was to watch. So I was leaning over the pilot and looking down at our land.
Q. Did you achieve any political goals?
A. In political terms, we managed to present an important question to the world. The second achievement was showing that we could penetrate this enemy, despite all its strength and power. The third objective was to get the prisoners released, and this happened after the plane landed. They released 13 Syrian prisoners, including two pilots, because we landed in Syria, which had done the negotiations.
Q. You were arrested in Britain after your second hijacking in 1970. What was it like while you were in British custody?
A. I was in a police station in London, not a regular prison. The day following my arrest, a young unarmed Palestinian man hijacked a British aircraft and brought it to Jordan to help in my release. And the whole world was mobilized because three flights were hijacked at the same time. So the first few days in prison, the authorities tried to talk to me, but I refused, telling them they had to first recognize me as a fighter of the PFLP and the Palestinian people. So they didn't speak to me for the first few days. After five days, they said the British government had agreed to recognize me, and indeed, some of them stood up and said they recognized me as a fighter for the PFLP and the Palestinian people.
Q. How were you treated?
A. They treated me with respect, keeping in mind that a British plane was hijacked to Jordan. They took very good care of me. They had two women with me in the room all the time. They allowed me to play tennis. A physician visited me every day, and I showered twice a day.
Q. Do you regret anything? Would you do things differently?
A. I have no regrets. Every action at the time and within that situation — not at this time, but at that time — was necessary. Part of the objectives was achieved. We succeeded in presenting the Palestinian cause with a force to the world. But freeing all the prisoners was not achieved.
Q. Would you like to see your sons follow your example?
A. I wouldn't say I want them to do what I did. But I'd like them to give importance to their cause. I'd like them to put their cause at the forefront.
Q. Would you like them to be active?
A. The circumstances are now different. Therefore, their options have changed. I can't impose anything on them. Both are still studying, one at the university and the other just finished his high school. My older son, who's studying computer science, says there are scientific means and ways to participate in the struggle. I see my boys communicating with people abroad on the Internet on Palestine. But they're not involved the same way I was.
Q. As the hijacker of two planes, what did you feel when the airliners smashed into the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001?
A. I saw it on television and thought it was a film. Then I realized there were operations happening. We, at the Front, were always careful not to hurt innocent crew because they were not responsible for anything. Now, what happened on Sept. 11, flying planes into buildings, was criminal. What do the passengers and people in the buildings have to do with anything? It was horrible to see buildings collapse and people burn and die. At the same time, I felt the danger of this thing, and saw the repercussions. The question that comes to mind is who was really behind this act?
Q. How do you see the Mideast "road map"?
A. The road map is a continuation of the Oslo accords. But it's a map that does not lead to the Palestinian road. It leads to the Israeli road in terms of its texts. The political reality says that everything (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's government has done and is doing indicates that this government is not serious about peace with the Palestinians. All that is required of the "road map" is to stop the intifada.
Q. Do you think the intifada has already stopped, or at least, dwindled?
A. No one can make the intifada continue or stop. The intifada is an expression of the people's choice. The hudna (the recent cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians) is just a pause. As long as there is occupation, the intifada will continue.
Q. What are you doing now?
A. In Jordan, I am not active because we don't have an organization here, since Palestinian activities are illegal. But I work with women groups, federations and societies. Most of my activities are abroad, giving lectures and talking about the struggle.
Q. Are you comfortable with that?
A. Of course not.
Q. Have you visited the West Bank?
A. I went to the West Bank and Gaza in 1996 for 40 days to participate in the Palestine National Congress, but the authorities would not give my husband and children permits to go there, so I came back to Amman. My husband was deported in 1970.
Q. Do you still dream of an independent Palestine?
A. My dream hasn't changed, and will not change. All that's changed are the realities. I still dream that millions of Palestinians like me can one day return to Palestine, and have a state of their own.
Q. What are the realities holding you back?
A. All attempts are being made to conform to America's desires and demands for the Middle East, especially after the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That's why they're trying to calm down the situation in Palestine. The Israeli Knesset recently voted that the West Bank and Gaza were not occupied territories, which means a law that declares the territories as part of Israel. Then there's the so- called security fence, which is effectively apartheid. The Israeli crimes did not stop, but this will create a new face of resistance because that's the natural equation.
The resistance in Iraq will also escalate, and that will confuse the U.S. plans. The new Iraqi council is sectarian, which is always the basis for civil war. If the resistance in Iraq escalates, it will create a new situation that will affect the whole region and will reflect on the United States when more American soldiers return in body bags. The colonialist doesn't learn. As Ho Chi Minh said, the colonialist is a stupid student. They don't learn unless they're struck on the head.
See also: Leila Khalid, 26 Jan 2001.