Friday, December 07, 2012

Leila Khaled: A Hero of the Palestinian Struggle Returns to Palestine

Palestine liberation hero Leila Khaled of the PFLP at a rally this week in Gaza.

There are very few living revolutionaries I revere. History has been hard on heroes: so many have been transformed into martyrs. But one of my real heroes returned to the stage of history this week, though you might not know it from the lack of mainstream press coverage. Palestinian revolutionary Leila Khaled bravely returned to Palestine this week. In the aftermath of Israel's recent war on the tiny swath of Palestinian territory, the border between Gaza and Egypt is now more open than it has been in decades. And so Khaled was able to travel from her home as a refugee in Jordan to a part of her country long forbidden to her by the state of war and occupation between the Israeli state and the Palestinians.

Leila Khaled arriving in Gaza after crossing from Egypt at Rafah.

I read Khaled's now out-of-print autobiography "My People Shall Live" many years ago. In it she tells the story of how she came to be a revolutionary, and what lead to her role hijacking airplanes for the Palestinian cause. She describes how the view from the plane flying over Haifa was as close as she could come to returning to the place of her birth. While of course many accuse Khaled of being a terrorist, her hijackings were political statements and not instruments of random terror against innocent people. (See an earlier post here at The Cahokian for some thoughts on the politics of airplane hijacking). At a time when the Palestinians were a defeated, victimized people, considered a non-entity by so many, Khaled became a human face for the spirit of resistance.

The revolutionary Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine celebrates its 45th birthday.
Khaled is a member of the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was founded 45 years ago. The rally in Gaza was meant to celebrate the anniversary of the PFLP as well as the 25th anniversary of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Speaking to the people of Gaza, Khaled clearly expressed the PFLP's point of view, quite different than the conciliatory view of the PLO majority that governs the Palestine Authority. She said:

"I am proud of you, you raise all of our heads high. The entire Palestinian people is unified behind you, united with the resistance even when split on negotiations and calm, and in the camps and diaspora we hear the echoes of your struggle and say ‘We are with you, Gaza’. During the Zionist aggression, everywhere in the camps and in diaspora our people were cheering for the resistance.... I said that I am going to Gaza, this holy land of resistance which raised all of our heads high. I am going to my family, my friends and our people there. I bring with me great love from the parents who want to return to Gaza, Haifa, Yafa, Jerusalem and Ramallah. We want to return to all of Palestine and we will definitely return to all of Palestine.... At this moment I will repeat the words of the martyr and leader Abu Ali Mustafa: I come to continue the revolution, to continue resistance, and never to compromise on the constants.... [the right of Palestinians to return] is baptized with the blood of the Palestinian people who will continue to struggle until achieving our goals and our return.”

The PFLP was the most important of the Palestinian liberation organizations formed to to the left of the nationalist Fatah movement. The PFLP of George Habash and Ghassan Kanafani came to be among the most militantly revolutionary, influenced by Maoism in the moment when the People's Republic of China seemed interested in fomenting worldwide revolution. Unlike the Islamic militant wings of today's Palestinian movement like Hamas, the PFLP was (and is) a secular movement: many of its founders were in fact largely drawn from the Palestinian Christian community, and they explicitly adopted Marxism-Leninism. The current head of the PFLP, Ahmad Saadat, is imprisoned by Israel. Ironically he had been arrested by the Palestine Authority and was later seized by the IDF.

The iconic portrait of Leila Khaled taken in the late 1960s.
Leila Khaled's image has come to be iconic of the struggle of the Palestinians. At the time of her courageous acts she was young, beautiful, and eloquent. She reflected the will and determination of a people fighting for freedom against desperate odds.

"My People Shall Live"
I am inspired by her continued courage and determination. When American or Israeli politicians try to proclaim "there is no Palestine or there are no Palestinians," Leila Khaled's visage is there to prove them wrong. And her commitment to women's liberation and vision of a radical and socially just society adds dimension to the idea of the Palestinian revolution. In revering Khaled I honor not violence but resistance, courage, selflessness, and the indomitable hope of the human spirit.

The PFLP was formed out of revolutionary necessity.

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