'I Had to Be the Voice of Women': The First Female Hijacker Shares Her Story
On August 29, 1969, 25-year-old Leila Khaled made her way into the cockpit of TWA Flight 870 and commandeered the plane on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. After that, she became known equally as an icon and a terrorist.
Photo via Getty Images
On April 9, 1948, a young Palestinian girl from Haifa celebrated her fourth birthday, and between 100 and more than 250 Palestinian villagers were killed at the hands of the Irgun and Lehi, two paramilitary Zionist organizations, in what came to be known as the Deir Yassin massacre. The massacre proved to the girl's family that they could no longer keep their eight children safe in their home country—they would have to flee. In the days following the bloodshed, the little girl, Leila Khaled, became a refugee. Twenty-one years later she would become the world's first female hijacker.
Deir Yassin was the first large-scale massacre of Palestinians in the history of the Palestine/Israel conflict, and it was only the beginning of similar tragedies. It preceded the beginning of the 1948 Palestinian exodus—also known as the Nakba, literally "the disaster" in Arabic—by one month. Though Khaled's parents hoped fleeing the country would increase their children's chances at a safe and normal life—and by many historical accounts, they were safer fleeing than staying home—this did not mean that their new lives as refugees were free of struggle and danger. When Khaled's family left Palestine, they headed to the Dahiya, a suburb south of Beirut that has been home to thousands of Palestinian refugees since 1948. The location of major refugee camps like Sabra and Shatila, the Dahiya is a place all too familiar with instability and deadly attacks, committed by both Israeli forces as well as right-wing Christian Lebanese groups like the Phalangists. Overall, it is a poverty-stricken area populated mostly by refugees and Lebanon's own lower class. For four-year-old Khaled, it was her new home.
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Now 72, Leila Khaled agreed to Skype me from her home in Jordan in late June. She sat in her living room wearing thin-framed eyeglasses and a hot pink shirt with traditional white embroidery—quite the opposite image to the woman in the iconic photo of Khaled in her youth, wearing a military shirt and keffiyeh, the typically black-and-white scarf that has come to symbolize Middle Eastern pride, and holding an AK-47. On her hand she wears a ring made from the pin of the first grenade she ever used in training.
Khaled described her childhood as, simply, "miserable," living in a state of uncertainty about both her country and her family. When they left their country initially, her father stayed behind to fight for Palestine; he would join his wife and their children in the Dahiya six months after they made the initial journey. Growing up, Khaled recalls asking her parents two questions constantly: "Why are we living like this?" and "When are we going back?"
Based on the current state of Palestine, the latter may seem naive, but it was not entirely so at the time. In December of 1948 the UN adopted Resolution 194, which stated that, "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." Because Israel never complied, Khaled and many other refugee children continued to ask when they would return home well into adulthood.
As is the case with many refugee families, especially in the Dahiya, the Khaleds faced poverty. "I never had a whole pencil," Khaled told me, "always half. My mother used to cut it into two so every child could go to school." Despite this, the Khaleds had it better than most refugee families who did not have the family connections in Lebanon that provided Leila and her family with shelter and food. Still, they, like many others, relied on UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.
It was my happiest moment when we flew over Palestine and I saw my city.
By the late 50s, the atmosphere of the area echoed the "rise of the national spirit," according to Khaled, and she often participated in the frequent public demonstrations in her community meant to raise awareness for the plight of the Palestinian people. It was then that her involvement within the Palestinian resistance began to evolve from passive to active. Many of her older siblings had joined the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), which declared the liberation of Palestine as one of its main goals. In her early teens, though Khaled was not allowed to fight with the ANM quite yet, she contributed by providing fighters with food and support even in the middle of dangerous battles. At age 16 she was accepted as an official member.
In 1967, at age 23, Khaled joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or the PFLP, despite her mother's wishes. According to Sarah Irving's book Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation, Khaled's mother told her, "Let your brothers go and be fighters." But Leila Khaled did not want to be on the sidelines of the movement. "Calling for armed struggle—it was my dream," she told me.
The PFLP is considered a terrorist organization by countries like the US and the EU; its political leanings are usually described as secular and Marxist-Leninist. When the PFLP was formed, Khaled says, it was clear that it wanted both men and women actively involved in the resistance. When she was assigned to partake in a hijacking in 1969, she viewed the assignment as the PFLP upholding that idea.
On August 29, 1969, Khaled and fellow PFLP member Salim Issawi hijacked TWA Flight 840 on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv. Khaled boarded the plane with a hand grenade and pistol. Once in the air, the two revealed their weapons, made their way into the cockpit, and said, "This is the Palestinian movement taking over your airplane," according to Harry Oakley, the co-pilot. They then instructed the pilots to redirect the plane to Damascus, but not before flying over Palestine. "It was my happiest moment," she said, "when we flew over Palestine and I saw my city, Haifa—not the hijacking."
Despite being a young woman about to attempt a mission that would either end her life or change it forever, Khaled was not nervous. "The contrary," she told me, "I was happy because I was doing something for my people." As for the purpose of the hijacking, Khaled is just as straightforward there. "It was meant to put the question in front of the whole world: Who are the Palestinians? After 1948, we were dealt with as refugees who needed human aid and that's it—not recognizing our right of return. Also, to release the prisoners."
Upon landing, Khaled and Issawi evacuated the Boeing 707, and Issawi proceeded to blow up the nose of the aircraft as it lay empty on the cement. "We had instructions not to harm passengers," said Khaled. "Very strict instructions not to hurt anyone, and to deal with the pilot and the crew with politeness—not to frighten them even." Still, Khaled knows that her actions did, of course, frighten the innocent passengers, but to her, their momentary fear was a small a price to pay in order to put the suffering of her people on the world's stage.
In a post-9/11 world, it's hard to imagine, but in 1969, hijackings were a relatively new tactic and not considered death sentences to the extent that they are now. Video footage of the passengers aboard TWA flight 840 shows a crowd that is relatively calm—some even express an understanding of Khaled and Issawi's actions. In video footage of interviews with the passengers after the plane landed, one man reasons, "There was an Israeli assassin on board who was responsible for the deaths of many Arab women and children, and all they wanted to do was bring this assassin to a friendly Arab city and give him a fair trial." The "assassin" the man is referring to was Yitzhak Rabin; at the time, he was Israel's ambassador to the United States and was scheduled to be on TWA flight 840 that day, though a last-minute change of plans made it so he was not. Despite the understanding of some, like this passenger, many were understandably upset and shaken.
After six weeks of off-and-on hunger strikes and questioning in Syria, Khaled and Issawi were released. While they were in jail, Syria made negotiations with Israel that resulted in the release of Palestinian prisoners who had been kept in Israeli prisons. This—and the frenzy of attention that labeled Khaled a hero among many Palestinians, as well as put the Palestinian story on the world's stage—was enough for Khaled to deem the mission a success.
Others, however, including many Palestinians, did not agree. For one, whether Khaled knew it at the time or not, this hijacking would tie the word terrorism to the Palestinian resistance for years to come. Many thought her mission tainted their image in front of the world; rather than refugees in need, Palestinians were now terrorists who didn't deserve sympathy. In 2006 Palestinian–Swedish filmmaker Lina Makboul made a documentary called Leila Khaled: Hijacker. The film ends when Makboul asks Khaled, "Didn't you ever think that what you were doing would give the Palestinians a bad reputation?"
It was meant to put the question in front of the whole world: Who are the Palestinians?
Then, the interview cuts out. "By not having her answer in it," Makboul told me, "I wanted to show that in the end it actually doesn't matter—because she did it."
Still, I was glad to have the opportunity to ask Khaled myself. "I told [Makboul], I think I added to my people, not offended the Palestinian struggle," said Khaled.
It makes sense that Khaled was proud of her mission—for one year later, she would do it again. This time, though, it was with a different face.
After the first hijacking, Leila Khaled quickly became an icon within the Palestinian resistance. Posters of her famous photo were printed out and hung around refugee camps that occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the diaspora. She was well known—a problem for two reasons. One, she never wanted personal fame; in fact, she found it pretty annoying. "Some would ask me, 'How many hours do you spend in the mirror?'" she said, "as if this was a question of any logic." She often refused to answer. "We'd be happy to answer all the questions dealing with the cause itself," she said, "the core issues, why the conflict, who is oppressing who, and so on—these are the main issues that we want to raise in front of the media. Not whether I have a boyfriend or not. That doesn't mean anything."
The second issue was that being very recognizable made it difficult to continue her work with the PFLP. In 1970, Khaled was appointed to participate in another hijacking mission, but her new notoriety meant she could no longer fly under the radar like she had before. Still, no measure was too drastic when it came to the question of Palestine: Between the first hijacking and the second, Khaled underwent six total plastic surgeries in Lebanon.
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On September 6, 1970, Khaled and a man named Patrick Argüello, a Nicaraguan–American who volunteered with the PFLP, attempted to hijack a plane on its way from Amsterdam to New York City. This time, Khaled's mission did not run so smoothly. After moving to the cockpit and threatening to blow up the plane, Khaled was tackled in the air by guards and passengers while carrying two hand grenades and a pistol. In an attempt to defend her, Argüello fired at those tackling her, but he was shot and later died of his injuries. Simultaneously, the pilot of El Al flight 219 cleverly dropped the plane into a nosedive; Khaled lost balance, making her more vulnerable to attack, despite the visible weapons she carried.
This operation was a part of a series of PFLP missions known as the Dawson's Field hijackings. (Dawson's Field is the deserted airstrip in Jordan where Khaled and Argüello were supposed to force the plane to land.) With Khaled knocked out by the men who tackled her and broke her ribs—and Argüello dead—the plane made an emergency landing in London. In her autobiography, My People Shall Live, Khaled writes, "I should have been the one to be killed because it was my struggle and he was here to support us."
After being taken to the hospital, Khaled was held and questioned by British authorities while the PFLP held the passengers who were aboard the rest of the hijacked aircrafts hostage at Dawson's Field and attempted to negotiate with the countries they were from. The majority were released in Amman a few days later, but the PFLP kept 40, arguing that they were members of the Israeli army and thus "prisoners of war." On September 30, British authorities let Khaled walk free as part of a negotiated deal with the PFLP; several Palestinian prisoners were also freed from European prisons.
Upon her release, Khaled went back to Beirut and back to work, though she was constantly on the move to ensure her safety. In November of 1970, not two months after she left prison, she married the man who first taught her how to hold arms. He was a military commander in the PFLP who had previously been jailed for ten years in Iraq, where he was from, for his involvement in the Communist Party. But as tensions in Jordan were on the rise and Khaled's husband felt pressure to go fight with his men, their relationship began to disintegrate. When Khaled could no longer ignore Israeli threats and decided to go into hiding, it was clear that their marriage was no longer working; the couple decided to get a divorce.
In 1973 Khaled decided to move to the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. (Shatila is widely known for the massacre of 1982, where death toll estimates are between 700 to 3,500 people—mass graves and a failure to investigate by the Lebanese government account for the wide range.) Fed up with her widespread, international attention, Khaled wanted to be in a humble place. "To be under light all the time was not comfortable for me," she said. "For this reason I went and lived in Sabra and Shatila camp—to be with the people and work with the people."
When Khaled visits Shatila with Lina Makboul in her documentary, she is visibly welcomed as a hero. "I have always dreamt of walking beside you," a man says to her as she makes her way through the camp on her way to visit an old comrade. Another points to her jokingly, "Do you know Leila Khaled? She is a terrorist!"
Though Khaled is widely known for the hijackings that took place more than 40 years ago, she has been anything but absent from the resistance since then. In the aftermath of her hijackings, Leila Khaled became involved in the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) and a member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC). Threats against her safety were a part of her daily life and frequently materialized. On Christmas 1975, she came home to find her sister and her sister's fiancé shot dead in her apartment. She had been the target.
In 1978 she left Lebanon to study history in the Soviet Union, where she met her second husband, a medical student and fellow PFLP member, Fayez Hilal. But two years after she began her studies, the resistance called—she was back in Lebanon working at the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office. Khaled and Hilal had two children in the 80s, Badar and Bashar.
To feel injustice and be conscious of who is oppressing you—you will act as a human being, whether you are a woman or a man.
It was never easy being a woman in the resistance, let alone a mother—she was expected to speak for the entire female Palestinian population. "I had to be the voice of women, those who nobody sees," she said. Still, she maintains that the victims in the conflict are the Palestinian people in general—not women or men. "To feel injustice and be conscious of who is oppressing you—you will act as a human being, whether you are a woman or a man," she said. "Men were fighting; they gave their lives. Women also gave their lives. Men and women went to jail."
Today, Khaled is an icon of not only the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation, but also of the Palestinian women's movement. "The revolution changed the image of the Palestinian woman," she said. "They are also in the revolution on an equal basis—they can do whatever the revolution needs."
When Khaled is asked about religion, she is firm that her enemy has never been Judaism. After her second hijacking, Khaled was rushed to a hospital in London, where a cop informed her that her doctor was Jewish. Khaled didn't mind. "I was against Zionists, not Jews," Khaled later told Sarah Irving. "[The cop] did not understand the difference, and I was in too much pain to explain."
Unlike most notorious terrorist organizations today, Khaled's organization, the PFLP, has a secular reputation. It was the last week of Ramadan when I spoke to Khaled, but she told me that she isn't particularly religious. "I think that whatever you are—you believe in Islam, or Christianity, or in Judaism—this is something personal," she told me. When I asked if she practices Islam, she said, "I practice the values of humanity. These values are also mentioned in Islam: to be honest, to help the poor."
Khaled has been called both an Arab-Marxist hijacker and a freedom fighter, regarded as both a terrorist and a hero. When I asked her to define terrorism, she said it was "occupation." The Leila Khaled on my Skype screen had been through much more than the young woman in the photo with her head loosely wrapped in a keffiyeh, but fundamentally the two are much the same. The terrorist/freedom fighter debate may be relative when it comes to Khaled, but her unwavering devotion and passion for Palestine is indisputable. "I'm from a family who believes in Islam," she said, "but I'm not a fanatic. I'm a fanatic about Palestine and about my people."