Thursday, July 05, 2012

Review of Sarah Irving's book 'Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation'

Sarah Irving's biography of Leila Khaled illuminates the life of a woman freedom fighter in half a century of Palestinian resistance

Susannah Tarbush

British writer Sarah Irving’s book Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation , on the PFLP activist and one-time air hijacker, has created quite a stir since its publication a few weeks ago by London-based independent publisher Pluto Press. Zionists campaigned against the holding of the book's first launch event at Blackwell's bookshop in the northern English city of Manchester. They relentlessly harassed shop staff by phone and e-mail until Blackwell's cancelled the launch.

Pluto Press deplored the dangerous development represented by these actions of "pro-Israel apologists", and said "these attempts to shut down free discussion about the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict must be opposed. Without such discussion historical injustice will not be recognised and mutual understanding put even further out of reach."

The Zionist campaign backfired, increasing publicity for the book including on the internet and through social media. The Manchester launch took place anyway, with the venue moved to Manchester Digital Laboratory (known popularly as 'Madlab').  At the London launch, held in  Housmans radical bookshop,  Irving addressed a packed out audience and demand for her book was high. Irving's book has attracted a string of highly favourable reviews, examples of which are posted on the Pluto website.

In the second week of July Irving undertook a launch tour of organised by the Educational Bookshop, East Jerusalem, with events in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem (the tour had a dedicated Facebook page).

Alongside her book tour Irving appeared with Leila Khaled over video link at the Marxism 2012 festival in London on Sunday 8 July during the event 'Intifada! The Struggle for Palestinian Freedom', also featuring Peyman Jafari, at 3.45-5.00 pm. Irving and Khaled had been due to appear together on 16 July at Readers Bookshop in Cozmo mall, Amman, but the event was cancelled; Sarah Irving explains in the comment below that this was "due to problems with the Jordanian postal system (and therefore censor copies not arriving on time) and then late deliveries. Leila will hopefully be doing a replacement event at Readers after Ramadan..."

Further down the line, Irving will be participating in Word Power Books Radical Book Festival to be held in Edinburgh from 24 to 28  October. 

Leila Khaled's name on a Marxism 2012 poster displayed at SOAS

Irving first visited Palestine and Israel in 1996, and has a long record of involvement in Palestinian issues. She has worked in Palestine not only as a writer but as a human rights observer, tour guide and fair trade goods purchaser.

Irving is author of the much-acclaimed Bradt Guide to Palestine (2011), and runs which promotes community tourism and ecotourism in the West Bank and among Palestinian enclaves in Israel. She is co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza Beneath the Bombs (Pluto Press, 2010). She blogs on her website and writes for a variety publications including the Guardian, New Internationalist and Electronic Intifada. Her Twitter address is @sarahonline_

Some pro-Israelis have claimed that Irving's book glorifies terrorism. But such allegations are wide of the mark. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation  is a thorough, thoughtful and nuanced work in which, among other things, Irving examines the ambiguities and contradictions around Khaled's activities.

In its statement on the Zionists' forced cancellation of the Blackwell's launch in Manchester Pluto Press noted "the hypocrisy of such threats." Leila Khaled’s actions in the late 1960s should certainly be open to criticism and questioning, "but they resulted in no deaths or physical injuries. By contrast sycophantic memoirs and autobiographies of Israeli leaders responsible for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians raise barely a murmur."

The book is the third volume in the Pluto Press series Revolutionary Lives, intended as short critical biographies of radical political figures. The stated approach of the series is “sympathetic but not sycophantic” - and this well describes Irving’s attitude to her subject.

Irving points to the double-edged consequences of hijackings designed to draw attention to the Palestinian cause. "Hijackings carried out by Palestinian groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s certainly meant that few people in the USA and Europe could continue to claim to have no idea who the Palestinians were," she writes.  "But the extent to which this new knowledge had a positive impact is questionable." For many, "it simply turned Palestinians from a group of people they had never heard of into a group of people they associated irrevocably with the word 'terrorism'".

Khaled says the hijacking were a "tactic not a strategy. After the last PFLP hijackings we concentrated on operations in Occupied Palestine and on defending ourselves in Lebanon, against the Lebanese Army and the Israelis." Irving says that Khaled is impassioned and at times tearful when she defends the tactic of hijacking, saying it was justified and effective. "It was a panic for people for a short time but we never meant to hurt anyone. For our people there had been years and years of suffering, under occupation or in the diaspora, and yet no one wanted to show this side of things."

In 155 pages Irving covers an impressive amount of ground. A major source of her material is a week of  interviews she conducted with Khaled at her home in Amman in September 2008, and the e-mail and Skype communications between the two between then and November 2011. Irving has interviewed Palestinians who have known Khaled and has referred to numerous English-language published sources; the book has extensive chapter notes and a four-page bibliography. The book quotes from certain works that are hostile to Khaled - notably American feminist Robin Morgan's book The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism.

The book fills a gap in the material published on Khaled. There is no up-to-date biography of her in English: what biographical material there is was published years ago. After the hijackings in which she was involved Khaled co-operated on an autobiography with George Hajjar, an academic who worked for the PFLP's publicity department. The aim was to take political advantage of the events of 1970. The resulting book My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1973.

The TV broadcaster Peter Snow wrote, with David Phillips, Leila's Hijack War: From the day of the Mass Hijack to the Day of Nasser's Funeral (Pan Books, 1970). And there is Eileen MacDonald’s Shoot the Women First (London, Arrow Books, 1991) for which the author interviewed a number of women including Khaled.

 Sarah Irving

Irving's book is written in a lively way, with information conveyed in a highly readable and engaging style. And it is funny in places: Khaled was a tomboy as a child, and has a roguish sense of humour and a persistent defiance.

Irving opens her narrative with an account of the dramatic event that catapulted Khaled to fame in August 1969: the hijacking by Khaled and her PFLP comrade Salim Issawi of a TWA flight from Rome to Athens. The flight was diverted to Damascus, Khaled ordering the pilot to fly low over her birth city of Haifa which she and her family had been forced to leave in 1948. In Damascus Issawi blew up the aircraft's nose cone and the Syrians held the two hijackers for several weeks.

The beautiful young female hijacker attracted international attention. Reuters images of Khaled with her high cheekbones and doe eyes, wearing a kaffiyeh and posing with a Kalashnikov became iconic of the Palestinian revolution. Khaled told Irving  that these pictures were actually taken in Lebanon well after the hijacking.

The following year, on 6 September 1970, Khaled and Sandinista Patrick Arguella tried to hijack an El Al plane bound for New York. Since her first hijacking Khaled had undergone six rounds of plastic surgery to try to disguise her appearance. This hijacking was part of an audacious PFLP multiple operation in which four aircraft were to be hijacked and forced to fly to Dawson’s Field in Jordan. But the attempted hijacking of the El Al plane was foiled and Arguella was killed by an air marshal.

The plane was diverted to Heathrow airport and Khaled was held at Ealing police station in West London. She was released after three weeks as part of a deal for the release of hostages from the three planes that the PFLP had diverted to Dawson's Field and blown up.

Irving points out that "in a post 9/11 world it is hard to grasp the extent to which the meaning of hijackings, and the reactions of hijacked passengers have changed." Unlike today passengers had no reason to think they would die, but hijacking is a tactic which relies on fear and hijackings are "still dependent on the terror of the passengers and crew to work."

the iconic image of Leila Khaled 

Khaled was born in 1944 to a lower middle-class family in Haifa where her father was a cafĂ© owner. In April 1948, a few days after the Deir Yassin massacre, the family fled to refuge in Lebanon where there was an uncle in Tyre. They spent a year in Tyre, a time that Khaled remembers as "one of exile and dispossession". Even though the family was not as badly off as the majority of refugees and was able to stay with relatives rather than go to a camp, the difficult transition was the basis of her politicization in her teens. 

It was Khaled's older siblings who introduced her to the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) founded by George Habash and Wadi'a Haddad as students at the American University of Beirut (AUB). As a 14-year-old at the time of the 1958 conflict in Lebanon, Khaled carried food to fighters on the front line. Her bravery allowed her to join the ANM as a full member after the conflict was over. She enrolled at AUB, and was involved in Palestinian student politics, but after a year her brother could no longer pay the fees, and she left for Kuwait to teach. She remained there for six years while still working underground for the ANM.

The PFLP was formally established at the end of 1967, in the wake of the disaster of the June war, and  Khaled enthusiastically trained as a PFLP fighter: Haddad eventually picked her for the 1969 hijacking. Irving traces the development of the PFLP from the merger of the ANM with two other Palestinian organisations; the DFLP and PFLP-GC later broke away. 

Khaled's name may have become synonymous with the hijackings that took place in a certain phase of Palestinian  history, but as Irving shows there is far more to Khaled's life than that. Khaled has remained an activist in the four decades since those events. In 1979 she was elected as a PFLP representative to the Palestine National Council, of which she is still a member. Two years later she was voted onto the PFLP's Central Committee. She heads the PFLP's committee on Refugees and the Right of Return, a role which requires constant travel.

Irving depicts well the interweaving of Khaled's personal and political lives. She has paid a high personal price for her activism: on Christmas day 1976 she returned home to find her sister, and sister's fiancĂ©, shot dead. Her sister had been mistaken for her. Khaled refused to work for the PFLP until those guilty were caught, a year later. 

Khaled's first marriage ended in divorce at least partly because of the difficulty of combining married life with the discipline of being a PFLP militant. She had fallen in love with her first husband, an Iraqi named Bassim, when he was commander of her first PFLP training camp in 1969. He had joined the PFLP after being imprisoned for 10 years in Iraq for membership of the Iraqi Communist Party. The long separations while they were on PFLP postings contributed to the breakup of the marriage.

While at university in the Soviet Union in 1978 Khaled met fellow PFLP member Fayez Hilal , originally a West Banker. Khaled's mother advised Hilal not to marry Leila, but they did marry in 1982 and in Irving's book Khaled praises her supportive husband.

Khaled shared with many Palestinians the need to move location as circumstances changed. She and Fayez moved  from Beirut to Damascus after the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut, and the departure of the Palestinian resistance from the city. After the birth of her two sons Bader and Bashar, Khaled found herself trying to juggle motherhood and work at a time when her husband was still in the Soviet Union specialising. Pressures from Khaled and other women led the PFLP to set up nursery facilities.

Khaled had little eagerness to get involved in the Palestinian women's movement when George Habash asked her in the early 1970s to become a PFLP representative in the General Union of Palestinian Women. She had up till then been keen to prove that women could do the same as men, but  Habash told her: "As a woman you have to fight for the rights of women, you have to be the voice of women" and she reluctantly agreed. The circumstances of the Lebanese civil war were tough for Palestinian women, and Khaled also had to contend with complicted internal issues in GUPS. But she grew to find her work with the General Union among  omen in the camps fulfilling and educational.

Palestinian women were also finding their feet on the stage of international women's gatherings. Such events "opened her eyes to issues she had never dreamed of" - such as demands for lesbian rights. At such gatherings she was  forced to "meet with her Israeli enemies in an environment which wasn't an airplane hijacking or a military confrontation - and in some cases to accept that they might even be her allies." Among the Israelis present at such events were members of the Israeli Communist Party Maki, which included Palestinian citizens of Israel. Khaled was introduced to Felicia Langer, the legendary Israeli lawyer who defended Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel.

When Khaled attended the UN Women's Conference in Copenhagen in 1980 she received death threats and there were  reports that Israel would seek to have her extradited from Denmark. She "re-emerged" in Copenhagen, and some Western feminists, such as Robin Morgan and to a lesser extent Jill Tweedie, criticised the tension between feminism and nationalism that Khaled seemed to embody.

The General Union of Palestinian Women faced an uphill task in trying to promote the position of women in a society torn between tradition and revolution. The PFLP was in general at the forefront of Palestinian groups in trying to combat discrimination against women, but she recalls how the first time she led a group of fighters in Lebanon some of the men tried to refuse to let her lead until the chief of their military section said they must do so. 

In 1992 Khaled and her husband decided to move to Amman; it took Khaled and her sons two years to get passports. Khaledwas reelected to the PFLP central committee in 1993 and 2000. She left GUPS leadership back in 1985 but remains on its Administrative Council, and she is still on the PNC.

The PFLP strong opposed the Oslo Accords with Israel, and Khaled is  critical of the PNA. It was membership of the PNC that gave Khaled the one chance she has had since childhood to return to Palestine, for the PNC meeting held in Gaza in 1997. She faced great difficulty in getting admitted across the border to the West Bank and her confrontation with Shin Bet (Israeli intelligence) during prolonged questioning was reminiscent, Irving says, of "the kind of debates that had so frustrated David Frew [her British police interregator] in Ealing police station" more than a quarter of a century earlier.

There were fears Israelis might try and abduct her and she was whisked away in a Palestinian official's vehicle after crossing the border. The meeting of PNC in Gaza was emotional, with many delegates not having seen their homeland for decades.

The PFLP has tried to negotiate new political relationships since first intifada - both with its old adversaries in Fatah and with rising Islamist movements, especially Hamas. The PFLP has sometimes tried to broker peace between Fatah and Hamas. Like Hamas the PFLP opposes Oslo, but Khaled is sceptical of Hamas as a  movement. "On practices such as suicide bombing, with which Hamas is strongly associated in the West, Khaled remains ambivalent but certainly does not issue a complete rejection," Irving writes. Khaled says: "We don't justify it, but we cannot condemn it." The PFLP's Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, named after the assassinated PFLP General Secretary, has carried out a few suicide operations itself. Irving points out that while suicide bombings have a high profile in the Western media, Palestinian civilian casualities receive much less coverage.

Although in 2000, in recognition of its cadres' increasing age, the PFLP decreed a retirement age of 55 for men and 65 for women - and Khaled is a decade beyond retirement but she laughs that she will "only retire when I get back to Haifa." She travels on PFLP work and attends international conferences including  World Social Forum conferences. She is still open to working with certain Israelis, but not with the wider Israeli peace movement which refuses to discuss Jerusalem or refugees.She sees the right of return of refugees as the key to solving the conflict. 
"Unless the core issues, the land and the refugees, are dealt with in a just way this conflict will go from one generation to another. All these elements of the struggle and the conflict will gather together. It will work itself out. I don't think it will be in my lifetime but for other generations."


Sarah Irving said...

Just FYI - sadly the 16th July launch in Amman will not be going ahead, due to problems with the Jordanian postal system (and therefore censor copies not arriving on time) and then late deliveries. Leila will hopefully be doing a replacement event at Readers after Ramadan...

starbush said...

Thanks for this Sarah! Have now amended story. Hope post-Ramadan event will go ahead.

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