Interview with Leila Khaled: ‘BDS is effective, but it doesn’t liberate land’

PFLP hijacker Leila Khaled talks about the acts that made her a household name, the current states of resistance, feminism and religious coercion in Palestinian society, and gives a new take on long-buried tales of assassinations and betrayal within the ranks of the PFLP.

By Paula Schmitt

By the time she was 28, Leila Khaled had already hijacked two planes and held dozens of passengers hostage. Her image appeared on the covers of news magazines, her face was plastered on the walls of student dorms; she become a pop phenomenon, and an inspiration for TV and film characters.

A few days after the death of her brother-in-law and one day before the funeral of her cousin, the 70-year-old Leila combined ingredients in a bowl, making sure the proportions were just right. Careful with the mixture, she poured it in a special, heat-resistance plastic bag, and then added the main ingredient before shutting all of it within a temperature of 250° Celsius. The scents of the baked chicken spread around her Amman apartment, making for a strange addition to an interview on armed struggle, terrorism and politics.

Leila Khaled at her home in Amman, posing with the famous picture of her holding a Kalashnikov rifle, and a T-shirt made by Mlabbas exclusively for her. (Photo: Paula Schmitt)
Leila Khaled at her home in Amman, posing with the famous picture of her holding a Kalashnikov rifle, and a T-shirt made by Mlabbas exclusively for her. (Photo: Paula Schmitt)

Leila has no regrets about her choices. For her, what she did was fair and justified. In fact, it was a duty. She often quotes Che Guevara with corroborating lines, but Leila didn’t need a guerrilla to help her rationalize her acts. Even Gandhi, everyone’s favorite pet dove, said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” For Leila, the role of refugee is “contemptible” and “humiliating.” Between two imposed options, that of submissively walking to collect a blanket and a ration card, and that of taking up a Kalashnikov, she chose the latter.

She explains that “the plane hijackings were tactical. Just for a short time, just to ring a bell for the world and make people ask the question: why?” It seemed to have worked. Even the stewardess of the first flight hijacked by Leila said on camera: “It’s still a shame that it’s the way that it is — that the Palestinians don’t have a country.” The PFLP is now against hijackings. In fact, it has banned the practice since 1976, the reason why Wadie Haddad was expelled from the Front.

In her autobiography, Leila herself tells of how one hostage, an old lady, wet her pants out of fear. In the award-winning documentary “Leila Khaled: Hijacker,” director Lina Makboul, herself a Palestinian, questions whether Leila’s actions were good or bad for their people. “She said something like, ‘this action stained your struggle,’” Leila tells me, more surprised than offended. And in her book, she quotes a Syrian colonel who told her: “This action is not fedayeen-like. It is terrorism.”

“No, that’s not terrorism,” she tells me. “I am a victim of oppression and occupation; we, as a people, have the right to resist by all means.” Then she reminds me again that no one died.

But what if, hypothetically, what if someone had died of a heart attack on that plane out of fear, for example?

“I’d be sorry for that, very sorry, and I’d apologise to his family. I know there was panic, but at the same time I tried to comfort them, not to let them be in panic and so on, and in reality they reached out to the press and no one had a heart attack or anything.”

Just someone who wet her pants.

“Yeah, but I mean, there were very strict instructions not to hurt anyone, especially the passengers, they are not the ones we targeted, our goal was to release the prisoners from Israeli jails, especially the women who were there, they were sentenced to life many times, and to show our comrades and brothers and sisters in jail that you are not alone, we are behind you, we are freedom fighters. This would give more strength to other freedom fighters when they are arrested, so they can face their prosecutors and at the same time they know beforehand that they will be one day released by their comrades”.

I ask if she agrees that sometimes the victim becomes the victimizer.

“Yes. Like the Israelis”.

A graffiti stencil inside a Bethlehem-area checkpoint featuring the image of Leila Khaled. (Photo: Katsumi3/CC)
A graffiti stencil inside a Bethlehem-area checkpoint featuring the image of Leila Khaled. (Photo: Katsumi3/CC)

‘Violence is the mainstream’

Leila was born in Haifa in 1944 and was made to flee on April 13, 1948. It was only four days after her birthday, but it wasn’t celebrated then, and has not been ever since – that April 9th was the day Palestine mourned the Deir Yassin massacre.

Leila’s fight for Palestine is not due to an old, ancient attachment to her land. Her parents are not even Palestinian, but Lebanese. It is a love of justice that moves her. Like Ghassan Kanafani, she also hit a turning point during childhood when she suddenly understood her situation. Kanafani, in a painful and beautiful letter written to his son, describes the moment he realized his condition, the instant after “the disgrace of escape” when at 10 years old he witnessed the men of his family giving up their weapons to become refugees.

“Do not believe that man grows,” he wrote. “No; he is born suddenly – a word, in a moment, penetrates his heart to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood on to the ruggedness of the road.”

In her biography “My People Shall Live”, Leila recounts a similar experience, when she went to pick oranges from a nearby grove after her arrival in Lebanon, still thinking those were her oranges.

“Darling, [her mother said] the fruit is not ours; you are no longer in Haifa; you are in another country.” Before she rushed into the house to wipe her tears and hide her shame, she looked at me with motherly firmness saying: “Henceforth you are forbidden to eat oranges that are not ours.” With child-like acceptance I nodded my head, but her words still echo. For the first time I began to question the injustice of our exile.”

And also like Kanafani, Leila refused to give up her weapons. She herself was helped by another hijacking, led by a man she never met, and who was not even a member of the PFLP, according to her. While detained in the Ealing police station in London, she was one day surprised to know that someone was demanding her release. “The plane was hijacked by a single man, a Christian Palestinian all by himself.” I asked his name. “Marwan. I don’t know the surname. He hijacked that plane.” The man was not armed. “He deceived the crew. He had his bathing suit underneath and he pulled the elastic and said that was an explosive belt. At that moment, just the day after the collective hijackings, who would say no or dare to doubt him? He said ‘I want to go to Dawson’s field in Amman.’ He called and said ‘I want someone from the PFLP.’ He called Ghassan Kanafani from the plane. So Kanafani called Amman saying there’s another plane for you. People couldn’t believe him. They asked Wadie Haddad [if he had anything to do with that] and he said no, we were not planning for that. I myself was surprised when Mr Frew [chief superintended of the Metropolitan Police in London] told me that the plane had been hijacked. That’s why the British had agreed to release me afterwards, because of their hijacked plane.”

But while the PFLP now considers hijackings unacceptable, violence for Leila is a legitimate weapon. “Resistance doesn’t happen only through violence, but violence is the mainstream.”

You mean the main type of resistance?

“It’s the mainstream. There are several types: political resistance, the popular one, like going to the streets, demonstrating. When our women are embroidering our dresses, this is resistance.”

Leila Khaled in Beirut, January 18, 2009. (Photo by Sebastian Baryli/CC by 2.0)
Leila Khaled in Beirut, January 18, 2009. (Photo by Sebastian Baryli/CC by 2.0)


“BDS, of course, on the international level it is very effective. But it doesn’t liberate, it doesn’t liberate land. If there’s BDS all over the world, and the people are not resisting, there will be no change. BDS helps us to continue the struggle and to isolate Israel, and then the balance of forces changes here. It’s very important for us in the international level to have more people having campaigns, because it means the narration of our story is now on that level, people will ask ‘why are they going for the BDS?’ Now, there’s an experience, and it’s not something theoretical we are speaking about – the BDS during the apartheid era in South Africa, it helped the people who were holding arms. But if they were not holding arms it may have affected them politically, but it would not have liberated, not on the ground.”

You think you can win the war this way?

“In Vietnam, poor people defeated the Americans.”

That was in a different world, before the advent of drones.

“Whatever! There’s a fundamental equation: where there is occupation there is resistance. Nobody can change this. This is basic, it’s natural; you cannot change the sun and make it rise from the west. This is the truth; it is natural. When you are under oppression you resist.”

And how do you see people who choose not to resist, who are against violence?

“Like Mahmoud Abbas. He is not gaining anything. He puts conditions and Israel ignores them. Israel doesn’t give him any hint that they will accept a single one of his conditions. Let me tell you. Arafat went to Oslo and signed [the agreement]. What did Israel do? They confined him in Muqata in one room and killed him.”

Do you know that for a fact?

“Do you remember Sharon and Bush when they had that famous meeting in Washington? Sharon was telling Bush he wanted to kill Arafat. Bush said,‘he is very old, you don’t need to.’ And then Sharon said, ‘maybe god needs our help.’”

Indeed, such a meeting did take place, and the dialogue had the same gist. Uri Dan, an Israeli journalist and close friend to Ariel Sharon, describes the meeting in his book Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait.

“On April 14, 2004, Sharon was finally able to extricate himself from the promise that he had involuntarily made to the American president in March 2001 – not to touch Yasser Arafat. Sharon was at the White House; George W. Bush advised him to leave the destiny of the Palestinian leader in the hands of divine providence, and Sharon replied, half joking and half serious, that providence sometimes needs a helping hand. Without giving Sharon the green light to eliminate Arafat, the president didn’t try to impose further commitment on him, either.”

Fighting for a single democratic state

Hijacked airplanes on the ground at Dawson's Field in Jordan during the PFLP press conference, September 7, 1970.
Hijacked airplanes on the ground at Dawson’s Field in Jordan during the PFLP press conference, September 7, 1970.

I ask her about Hamas, elected by Israel as its enemy par excellence, a more suitable nemesis in a conflict where religion is the law, impossible certainties are the currency, and igno-arrogance is a founding principle. “Hamas believes that Palestine is a sacred place that belongs to the Muslims, and this contradicts our thoughts, the PFLP’s. But now the discussion is not about ideology, it’s about liberation. Anyone who fights Israel is on the same trench as we are.”

Leila approves of what she calls the new “strategic alliance” between Hamas and Fatah. “It’s a good step, we have been calling all the time for that, to end this division, because it harms us. But we are very cautious. This is not the first time. Many times they negotiated and…” She stops herself, uncertain of how to finish the sentence.

It is said that George Habash, the founder of PFLP, once stated that if he were allowed back to his house in Lydda, he would not expel the Jewish people living there but would instead build another floor to accommodate them. In her autobiography, Leila speaks of a Palestine that “we shall recover and make into a human paradise for Arabs and Jews and lovers of freedom.”

Leila wants one country for everyone. “We want the right to self-determination and to establish our own independent state on the Palestinian land. We didn’t say two-state solution, this is a new expression, I don’t accept the two-state solution. The historical goal is to have a democratic state in Palestine.”

A state called Palestine?

“Yes. Maybe we can even change the name, that’s not a problem. The problem is that people have to be there, to decide the future of this country.”

Leila’s autobiography had harsh words for the Hashemite Kingdom and King Hussein, and Jordan’s cosy relations with Israel. “Hussein’s actions could not be separated from those of the U.S. and Israel”; “Hussein retaliated by shutting off the camps’ water and electricity – a deed he was going to repeat in September with devastating effects on the poor”; “the Hashemite despot”; “Hussein’s barbaric onslaught against the resistance”; “Hussein had been urged for months by the U.S. embassy in Amman to ‘have it out’ with the Palestinians”; “the corrupt elements that stood behind Hussein and his CIA ‘advisers’”; “Hussein was savagely shelling the camps of ‘his subjects,’ under the pretext that an assassination attempt had been made on his life”; “more than one thousand people were sacrificed in honour of Hussein’s throne.”

But when talking to me this time, more than 30 years after her book was published, Khaled was cautious. I asked if she felt safe being here. “To an extent, yes, because there’s an agreement between Israel and Jordan not to use Jordan as a place for following other people.”

You mean that Jordan would protect you against assassination?

“Yes. But they don’t allow me to be active.”

Your book was written many years ago, you could have changed your mind regarding Jordan. Feel free to say you are not willing to talk. But from reading your book, Jordan seems for you almost as big an enemy as Israel.”

“No. Let me tell you. We have the following written down in a document: our enemies are Israel, the Zionist movement, imperialists. Because from the beginning we have to say who are our enemies very clearly, so that people don’t think today they are our enemy and tomorrow they are our friends. […] No, I don’t say that Jordan is an enemy, no.”

Betrayal from within

I ask Leila how many targeted assassinations were conducted by the PFLP, killings against people whom they really think deserved it. She tries to remember. “Ze’evi,” she says, referring to Rehavam Ze’evi, then the Israeli tourism minister and a leader of the most rightwing Knesset faction, who advocated population “transfer” and referred to Palestinians as lice and cancer.

That’s it?

“There was also a Mossad agent in London. Seif is his name. He was killed in his house, his wife was there.” I am still not satisfied. “There was also a woman from the Mossad, in Greece.”

I tried to confirm the information on the “Seif” hit but couldn’t. Leila could be referring to Joseph Sieff, who suffered an alleged assassination attempt by Carlos the Jackal in 1973 but who wasn’t killed.

I then ask Leila about the opposite – how many PFLP members have been targeted by the Mossad. And here comes a nugget that contradicts everything I’ve read about the death of her sister. According to several news outlets and at least three books, Leila’s sister was killed in a case of mistaken identity on Christmas Eve in 1976 with her fiancé, both murdered at home. The intended target would have been Leila and her husband, and the culprit would have been the Mossad. But an anonymous source at the PFLP told me that the killer was not the Mossad, but “the third man” in the PFLP, a certain Abu Ahmed Yunis. “He was stealing arms, stealing money,” said the source. According to the source, “this was not a case of collaboration; only corruption.

And in one meeting they [Leila’s sister and her fiancé] threatened to speak about his corruption. So before a big meeting he sent his people and shot both of them. They made a committee of investigation, led by Ali Mustafa, and the trail led to this guy, they caught him, interviewed him, put him in jail and they decided he should be hanged. Yasser Arafat at that time sent a group to Abu Ali Mustafa saying ‘please don’t do it, because if you do it, this will be like condemning the whole Palestinian revolution.’ Then this guy told those Arafat people to go to Yasser Arafat and tell him they have to clean their house first. Nobody is blaming us because we are cleaning our house. Each house has its dirty side, and we must clean it.”

I asked Leila to confirm the story and she said it was true, “but he was not the third man. We didn’t have that type of ranking.” Yunis would be executed a few months later.

In my research I could find no corroborating record of that story, and the only book I encountered that mentions Yunis’ existence puts the time of his death several years after the killing of Leila’s sister.

“He was influential,” Leila says, “he was our representative in the common leadership between Palestinians and Lebanese at that time. He felt that my sister was criticising him, his behaviour. Her husband was, too. That was on the eve of Christmas. It was me and her and her fiancé, we were going to Tyre to my mother’s house to celebrate. He was responsible for me. He told me and others, ‘don’t sleep in your houses tonight.’ He sent people to kill them.”

Leila says she never managed to cope with that. “A comrade to kill another comrade…” she says, shaking her head. “I told our comrades that he should be executed or else I would kill him. And he was executed, he and the one who fired the shots.”

According to Leila, the Mossad also didn’t perform one of the most cinematic assassinations ever attributed to it. The story has it that Wadie Haddad, an ex-PFLP leader, was killed in 1978 in the German Democratic Republic by eating poisoned Belgium chocolate sent to him by the Mossad. “That’s not true,” says Leila. “I knew him very well and he didn’t like chocolate. He had cancer.”

Indeed, Leila’s assertion is substantiated by one of the Stratfor emails leaked by Wikileaks in 2012. It shows a conversation between two private intelligence contractors, David Dafinoiu, president of NorAm Intelligence, and Fred Burton, Stratfor’s VP of counter-intelligence.



Hello Fred,


On Wadi Haddad: contrary to Aharon Klein and other publications on “behalf of” Mossad officers, the killing of Haddad by Mossad with poisoned chocolate is just a nice fiction story. Haddad was indeed on the Mossad assassination list and a “Red Page” order was given on his name along with other names such as Kamal Adwan, Hussein Abad Al-Chir, Mohammed Boudia, Abu Daud and others.

However, he died from leukemia that he suffered for a long time. The version of Mossad’s assassination played good for all the parties, presenting Wadi as a hero and Mossad as an assassins organization that the terrorists should be afraid of.

‘I represent Palestinians, not women’

After her first hijacking in 1969 at the age of 26, Leila chose to go under the knife to change her face and perform a second hijacking without being recognised. While the doctor complained that plastic surgery was meant to beautify, not deform, Leila called the operation a minor sacrifice for her cause, and put it in context in an interview to Jennifer Jajeh. “Women change their faces, their lips, and all these plastic surgeries to beautify themselves, but they didn’t beautify their minds. I did that. Beautified my mind.”

Leila Khaled portrait made of 3,500 lipsticks by Amer Shomali, February 28, 2012. (Photo by Amer Shomali) After Khaled hijacked two airplanes while still in her twenties, her image appeared on the covers of news magazines, her face was plastered on the walls of student dorms; she become a pop phenomenon, and an inspiration for TV and film characters.
Leila Khaled portrait made of 3,500 lipsticks by Amer Shomali, February 28, 2012. (Photo by Amer Shomali) After Khaled hijacked two airplanes while still in her twenties, her image appeared on the covers of news magazines, her face was plastered on the walls of student dorms; she become a pop phenomenon, and an inspiration for TV and film characters.

All of that made her an icon of feminism, which she rejected with her usual rationality, summarizing it quite efficiently in an interview to Ibrahim Alloush of the Free Arab Voice: “Other women from some parts of the world tell us that we can unite on the issue of our sexual oppression. Everywhere you look in the text, or the program of action, you’ll find the word ‘sex.’ You’ll find sex here, and you’ll find it there. It’s there to discuss sexual abuse one time, then again to discuss sexual tourism. The point is to de-politicize the question of women, and affirm that women can unite just as women.” She also told The Guardian that “sexual abuse is the problem of individuals, regardless of how rampant, whereas occupation is the problem of whole peoples.”

Leila has her own sense of priority. “I represent Palestinians, not women,” she once said. I tell her women in Gaza under Hamas were not allowed to participate in the marathon.

“That’s not our problem now,” she says. “It’s the problem there, and it is a problem faced even by us there. Hamas is trying to Islamicize the society, and of course, a lot of women, because they are under their control, are now wearing the hijab, whereas before they didn’t. I went there and asked them ‘why do you accept that?’”

Leila answers the question herself, suggesting that God, the ineffable, can be even less intangible than the solution to the Palestinian plight. “People have been looking for reparation for years. They’ve tried the nationalists, they’ve tried Nasser’s regime, they’ve tried Fatah, they tried the PFLP and they never got anywhere.”

But Leila’s fight, like that of the PFLP, has nothing to do with religion. When one visits the headquarters of the Jordanian Popular Democratic Unity Party in Amman, a PFLP branch, the most striking thing is hanging on the wall: a type of revolutionary drawing of a man and a woman duly fitted with shackles and machineguns. What is conspicuous about this drawing, and would be so for anyone who has lived in Jordan, is that the woman not only doesn’t wear a veil, but she is naked, along with the man. Another contextual shocker comes from the pamphlet announcing the candidates for the syndicate of pharmacists in a country whose Sharia court just decreed that women not wearing the veil are unfit to testify. Among the ten candidates on the pamphlet, two are women, and neither is wearing a hijab.

Drawings on the wall of the PFLP's Amman offices (Photo: Paula Schmitt)
Drawings on the wall of the PFLP’s Amman offices (Photo: Paula Schmitt)

And while some may argue with Leila’s distinctions between representing women or Palestinians, it’s refreshing to see how she chose her own battles, refusing to be a prisoner of political correctness and often not even aware of it. In one passage in her autobiography, she describes a dialogue with the chief of police at the “Ealing Hilton.” Exasperated by her refusal to answer his interrogation, Mr Frew reminds her he got gray hair. “That’s not from me,” she says. “That’s because you have a nagging wife.”

But Leila has, indeed, long conceded that Palestinian women suffer different types of oppression:

“The persecution of our women is compounded, not just cumulative,” she told Alloush. “She is oppressed nationally as a Palestinian under occupation or in exile. This is the primary facet and cruelest form of her oppression. The second facet is her socio-economic exploitation as a member of the social class she belongs to. Last but not least, she is oppressed as a woman because our societies are sexist.”

In her autobiography Leila is sometimes merciless against what she calls “the shackles of superstition and backwardness” in the Arab world. In fact, she names her enemies quite clearly, and at that time they were not only “Israel, the Zionist movement, imperialists” but also “Arab backwardness.”

Do you still believe in pan-Arabism?

“What do you mean by pan-Arabism?” she rejoins, sounding as if it was the first time she heard the term.

That the Arab world should be united.

“We are Arabs. We have all the same history, the same language. We were divided by the colonisers.”

What about the Christians?

“I didn’t speak about religion. Christians have the same history. We were all colonised after the First World War.”

I ask her about the Mutasarrifiyya, a semi-autonomous, Christian-ruled area in Mount Lebanon allowed under the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century, often remembered with longing by some Lebanese Christians.

“But it wasn’t according to religion before. It was a fruit of colonization. After the First World War the Arab world was divided among the colonizers who defeated the Ottomans. We were colonized by the khilafi, the khalifas, that was colonization.”

I change the question to the present.

“What would you say to the statement that determining that all Arabs are equal is a type of…” I want to say racism but I don’t. “When you propose to homogenise all the Arabs under pan-Arabism… isn’t that an imposition as well?

“In Brazil, you have different ethnicities, but you are a country. There are differences from a city to another. I don’t rely on the regimes, I rely on the people. And there are differences even within those places. You go to the United States, each city is different from the other. There is an agreement among Arab countries in the Arab league that we have a common market. In Europe they are different peoples, but they are united.”

You mean united in a strategic alliance, right? Is that what you mean? Economy, military power, natural resources?

“Yes, of course, that’s what I mean.”

I quote a passage from her autobiography where she says that “underdeveloped people live by fate.” We talk for a while and I say I will understand if she’d rather leave her opinions on religion confined to her book.

“I don’t criticize religion publicly – but I don’t believe in it”.

If Leila still has a god of sorts, it is Marxism. She calls herself a dialectical-materialist, and believes Cuba and Venezuela have the best governments in the world. I tell her Cuba’s is an oppressive regime, and that some of their athletes “representing” the country in the Pan-American Games tried to hide and demand political asylum in Brazil. I ask her to explain why most books and newspapers are forbidden in the island. Leila says Cuba has to act like that to “protect its people against American imperialism.” When I ask if she’d consider the governments of Norway, Denmark and Sweden as examples of good governance, Leila says yes.

I ask her if she regrets anything, if she gave her own sense of morality, that self-doubting side-glance mentioned by Schopenhauer.

“I regret that I didn’t continue my studies,” she says. “I tried to continue. In 1978 I went to the Soviet Union. I wanted to study history. But we were called, the PLO called all students who went on scholarships by the PLO to come and participate in the revolution in Lebanon. I went there and the war broke out.”

We talk about how religion, or religiosity, has often been used to mask moral corruption. For her, groups fighting in Syria like Jabhat al-Nusra are working for Israel, not on purpose, but as a result of their actions. “I think they are mercenaries, paid by Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and having Islam as a big slogan.” She believes the war in Syria is part of a bigger plan.

“The whole project of the Americans and Israel is to redraw the Middle East. We read and heard them speaking of the Greater Middle East. Even Shimon Peres has a book about it.”

I ask what she thinks of the Saudi regime.

“Saudi Arabia is ruled by the Americans. Look what happened. They were angry because Qatar was given a role for the last five or six years. Now they changed. So Qatar was asked, the emir was asked to resign, but this one, this emir, was the one who was negotiating with the Taliban, he was trained to make settlements among gulf countries.”

You mean he is as bad as the previous one?

“Yes, with a smiling face.”

I mention Sheikha Moza, the Qatari royal who is said to own vineyards in Israel.

“She goes to Netanya in the summer,” Leila says. “She was there in 2006,” the year Israel attacked Lebanon.

Has Palestine been betrayed, left alone?

“No, we are not alone. You are with us.”

Paula Schmitt (@schmittpaula) is a Brazilian journalist, Middle East correspondent, author of the non-fiction book, Advertised to Death – Lebanese Poster-Boys, and the novel Eudemonia.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article noted that April 9, 1948 was the first anniversary of the Deir Yasin massacre. It has been amended to reflect that April 9, 1948 was the date of the massacre itself, not its anniversary.