In 1969 the world was stunned by news that Trans World Airlines Flight 840 had been hijacked en route from Rome to Athens and redirected to fly over Haifa, Israel before landing at the newly-built Damascus International Airport in Syria. Of the two hijackers on-board, one stood out and became the subject of intense fascination for the international press who wondered what would drive such a young woman to take such a bold and dangerous step. This woman was 24 year-old Leila Khaled who, as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, brought the cause of the Palestinian refugees to the attention of the entire world. The motivations leading Leila Khaled to do what she did were the subject of a 2005 Swedish documentary film directed by Palestinian director Lina Makboul titled Leila Khaled: Hijacker. The movie deals with questions surrounding what constitutes an act of “terrorism”, and what the difference is between a “terrorist” and a “freedom fighter”; Leila has been called both.
Al Nakba – the Catastrophe that fell upon the indigenous people of Palestine in 1948 – would be for Leila Khaled, who was four years-old at the time, the primary motivating factor of the next six decades of her life. 1948 marked the year of the official creation of the state of Israel in the historic land of Palestine. For Jews, many of them having arrived recently from Europe where they’d nearly been annihilated, this was their moment of liberation after more than a millennia of both religious and ethnic persecution in eastern and western Europe alike. But for the Arabs of Palestine (of all religions though predominately Muslim since the 7th century) who’d been inhabiting the land for at least 1,400-1,600 years, it marked the beginning of their massive dispossession and humiliation when everything they’d known and loved was taken from them. Though later narratives would try to distort reality by insisting the Palestinian Arab population – who’d stayed put during 30 years of British Mandate period and 4 centuries under the rule of the Ottoman Turkish empire – simply left on their own initiative believing that neighboring Arab armies would “drive the Jews into the sea”, the truth of the matter is that the Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes following acts of sheer terrorism carried out by armed Jewish militia groups like the Stern Gang and Irgun. Massacres, such as those in the Palestinian villages of Deir Yassin, Abu Shusha, Beit Daras, al-Khisas, Lydda and many others were meant to stoke fear in the hearts of non-Jewish residents so that they would flee the territory.
Leila Khaled had been born in Haifa, Palestine on April 9, 1944, four years before the first phase of the 1948 Palestine War. In Haifa she’d lived with her father, mother, 3 sisters and a brother in their house on Stanton Street. This all changed after the war broke out and Leila’s family, like so many others, fled in panic to Lebanon while her father stayed behind to try and get back their home. The Arab armies were defeated, however, and the new state of Israel refused to allow hundreds-of-thousands of war-torn refugees to return to their homes. Life in the refugee camps was horrendous, and the Palestinians living in exile dreamed of nothing more than the ability to regain the lives they’d lost. When in 1967 Israel took what it called a “preemptive” strike against Egypt, the refugees’ hopes were raised. The anti-colonial foe of the West, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, promised them the time of their return was at hand. But the war of 1967 turned out to be an even bigger disaster than the one 19 years earlier. This time, with Israel’s victory it conquered all of Palestine, including the West Bank and Gaza which it refuses to concede control over to this very day. It is at this point, as the film says, “Leila realizes no one is going to help them. She’ll have to do it herself.”
Some of the most interesting scenes in the film include the exchanges between director Lina Makboul and Leila Khaled herself, such as when Makboul asks Khaled what sort of questions people in the media most frequently asked her, to which Leila responds:
Some journalists asked very personal questions.
They asked – was I in love? That annoyed me. Who did they think I was? I’m a fighter. Ask me about my work! One asked me how long I usually stood in front of the mirror.
I said, “What kind of question is that?”
They thought I was unfeminine. As if I wasn’t human. One of them wondered if I was in love.
“Did I have a boyfriend?” I said: “No!” After, he wrote that I was a cold person who couldn’t fall in love… These were the sort of questions I got.
One asked if I’ve had sex. What questions! Am I an actress or a dancer maybe?
In another scene Makboul asks Leila Khaled point blank, “Can you be described as a terrorist?” to which she responds:
Our enemies say so. Our enemies call any form of popular resistance terrorism…
Who decides and defines what terrorism is?
As far as I’m concerned, occupation is terrorism.
My people and I have a right to fight it. I don’t care what others call it…
Israel doesn’t care about international law. Why should we accept that?…
When we hijacked the planes the whole world wondered who we were. Regardless of what they thought about it, they wondered.
But when we were tortured in Israeli prisons, who heard our screams?
We had to do what we did in order to get your attention.
Our people suffered injustice. No sound person accepts that!
And finally, the film ends with an interview with Uri Bar-Lev, the Israeli pilot who successfully thwarted Leila Khaled’s second attempt at hijacking a flight in 1970. The interview is revealing in that it demonstrates the clear double-standard at play in much of the world’s thinking:
MAKBOUL: Can you understand why she did it?
BAR-LEV: There is no way how to use terror against civilians. There is no way… How can you justify air terror? How can you justify any kind of terror?…
What is a freedom fighter? What is that? A terrorist – I know what it is. It’s a person who kills civilians. What is a freedom fighter?… What is it? Just a word…
MAKBOUL: Do you know the story of Leila’s background, that she was forced to leave her home in 1948?
BAR-LEV: Again, you have so many… Of course she was forced. Again, there is so many false information out there that people don’t know them. I read her book. The book is full of lies and if you want, the book is here in English and I can show you. This is lie, this is lie, this is lie.
As far as Haifa is concerned, it’s very easy to show you where the lies is, because Haifa was a combined city between Arabs and Jews. When the Independent War broke out… Not because we agreed to the separation…Israel agreed to be a very small country. We were attacked by the Arabs. It was not vice-versa… So she lived in Haifa. She was a small child. She was not forced, her parents decided to leave Haifa. So?
MAKBOUL: Have you ever heard about the Deir Yassin massacre?
BAR-LEV: Yes, of course.
MAKBOUL: Did that happen?
BAR-LEV: Deir Yassin happened. It was one place, 20 or 40 people were killed. I don’t know how many.
MAKBOUL: Who killed them?
BAR-LEV: … [long pause] A Jewish group, part of the army. This time the army was not an army yet. It was a paramilitary… it was before the establishment of Israel. Okay, yeah. There was a case like this, yes. So?
So??? So, it exposes the whole myth that the Palestinians simply left without being driven out, not that there was ever an excuse to take their homes away from them even if they had chosen to temporarily leave. But, as is typical, Uri Bar-Lev is simply adhering to the old line of “a land without a people for a people without land”. His answer also reveals how acts of terrorism are often excused by those who stand to benefit from them. As Makboul notes in the film’s closing sequence:
The Stern Gang became celebrated heroes.
One of them even became the Prime Minister of Israel.
We, the Palestinians, still live with the bad reputation.
Maybe it’s OK to be a terrorist… if you win.