Encouraging the Peaceful Pursuit of Politics - Banning!


Four years ago, in January 2001, Leila Khaled, a member of the Palestinian National Council, was, after some lobbying, given a seven-day visa to enter Britain. In the House of Commons she addressed a meeting organised by George Galloway (then a Labour Party backbencher). Later, she gave a lecture at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Khaled was back in London in May 2002 and addressed an anti-Iraqi war rally in Trafalgar Square.

Next week, during Feile an Phobail, she was scheduled to address a meeting on the Falls Road, ‘Palestine Today – The Peace Process and Hopes for the Future’.

However, Leila Khaled has been refused a visa by the British embassy in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where she lives with her teenage sons.

In other words, she has been banned from entering Britain. We in this part of Ireland are banned from hearing her important views on peace and she is banned from hearing about our peace process. This is the way Tony Blair encourages Palestinians in the peaceful pursuit of their cause.

Leila Khaled was born in 1944 in Haifa which was then part of the British Mandate of Palestine. When Palestine was partitioned she and her mother, including seven other siblings, were driven out by zionists. Her father stayed behind in the resistance. The world then largely forgot about the displaced Palestinians who were scattered in refugee camps throughout the Middle East. At the age of fifteen Leila joined the Arab Nationalist Movement which became the PFLP after 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza.

She said: “We wanted to put the Palestinian question in front of international opinion. All the time we were being dealt with as refugees who only needed human aid. That was unjust. Nobody had heard our screams and suffering. All we got from the world was more tents and old clothes. After 1967 we were obliged to explain to the world that the Palestinians had a cause. We wanted to go back to our homeland. We also wanted to release our prisoners from Israeli jails.”

In August 1969 Leila Khaled became the world’s first female airplane hijacker when she seized a TWA plane on its way from Rome to Athens and diverted it to Damascus. Passengers were released in exchange for political prisoners and the plane was blown up. She was arrested by Syria but was released after 45 days. Because her photograph was published in the international media, compromising her anonymity, she underwent several plastic surgery operations to change her appearance.

The following year, September1970, at the age of 26, she was involved in a much more ambitious plan – the simultaneous seizure of several planes which were to be flown to Dawson’s Field, a former RAF airbase in Jordan, as part of a demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Germany, Switzerland and Israel. Her mission was the most dangerous because she and her companion, Patrick Arguello from Nicaragua, knew that armed guards flew on Israeli civilian flights. They tried to hijack an Israeli El Al flight out of Amsterdam but air marshals opened fire, fatally wounding Arguello. Leila, who had two handgrenades, was overpowered and badly beaten.

Britain became involved because the plane was in British airspace at the time and it then landed at Heathrow where she was arrested. A few days later a fourth plane, from Bombay to Beirut, was then hijacked, apparently in response to her arrest. The PFLP then demanded her release and the British government secretly negotiated through intermediaries and secured the release of many passengers, sixty-five of whom were British. However, to press the point and expedite the prisoners’ release the PFLP evacuated the remainder of the passengers from the planes before destroying them, and a third in Cairo. After twenty-eight days, Leila Khaled and six other Palestinian prisoners were released.

(However, to counter growing Palestinian activity, particularly from the mainstream Fatah, on Jordanian territory, King Hussein (secretly armed by Israel) launched a wave of attacks on refugee camps and bases, killing thousands and further scattering Palestinians throughout the Middle East, in what became known as ‘Black September’.)

Later, explaining why the PFLP had hijacked civilian aircraft, Leila Khaled said, “At the beginning of our revolution we had to create publicity for our struggle. I think that by using these tactics we succeeded in putting our message in front of the whole world.”

She says, “We had very strict instructions: don’t hurt the passengers. Only defend yourselves… I did not want to blow up the plane…It was only to threaten.”

The PFLP abandoned the tactic of plane hijacking in 1971.

Challenged in an interview two years ago whether she was a ‘terrorist’ she replied, “Who planted terrorism in our area? … Some came and took our land, forced us to leave, forced us to live in camps. I think this is terrorism.”

She said that they hijacked planes – in operations in which no civilians lost their lives – “because the whole world was deaf… We said why we were doing the operation. Those who killed themselves and others in New York [on 9/11] had no cause.”

She does not believe that hijacking is a legitimate form of protest today but warns that violence inevitably will continue in response to oppression and injustice, which hardly amounts to her threatening Britain. For the past 25 years Leila Khaled has devoted her energies to the political struggle but is critical of the negotiations in the 1990s which she believes weakened the Palestinian position, particularly on the refugees’ right of return.

“It’s not a peace process. It’s a political process where the balance of forces is for the Israelis and not for us. They have all the cards to play with and the Palestinians have nothing to depend on, especially when the PLO is not united,” she said.

The banning of Leila Khaled cannot be on the grounds of security – given that she has been allowed in Britain since 9/11. It cannot be because she supports suicide bombings: she has condemned 9/11. It cannot be because she supports Islamic fundamentalism – she was a member of the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), rejected the patriarchal restrictions of Arab society and asserted the role of women in activism and leadership.

The only reason for this purely punitive ban is cosmetic - to give the bruised British public the impression that Tony Blair is keeping them safe and sound – having endangered them a thousandfold with his imperialist escapades.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison