Khaled - a real person or a poster?

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Political posters like the famous one of Che Guevara, familiar to every leftwing activist in the 1960s and printed on millions of T-shirts worn by hippies and politicos alike, are powerful images to inspire people, but also reduce their subjects to simplistic cardboard cutouts who don’t change over time.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jan 21, 2015

Such is the iconic black and white picture of Leila Khaled who has been dubbed "the poster girl of the Palestinian struggle". Forty-six years ago, 25-year-old Khaled became a “World Revolutionary Heroine” when she hijacked TWA Flight 840 en route from Rome to Athens. She was the first woman to hijack an airplane. It was the same era when women’s libbers were burning their bras in America protesting against gender discrimination.

Together with her fellow-hijacker Salim Issawi, Khaled forced the Boeing 707 to fly to Damascus. The passengers were exchanged in Damascus for the release of 13 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

The subsequent worldwide publication of that photo of Khaled - portrayed as a sexy, resolute young woman with a checkered keffiyah, holding an AK-47 - defined her era as much as the Che Guevara poster.

In recent years this “heroine” or “villain”, depending on who you ask, has visited South Africa to draw attention to the Palestinian people’s suffering, and demand the severing of diplomatic ties between South Africa and Israel. Cosatu and the South African Council of Churches have hosted her. Now BDS is hosting her next month to help raise funds.  

Amidst all the fuss about BDS bringing her out, it is interesting to note a comment Khaled made in 2006 before coming here for a documentary film festival which included a film about her. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian ahead of her visit, she drew a clear distinction between the political objectives of her actions in 1969 and what she described as today’s “culture of death”. She reportedly said: “We were given very strict instructions not to hurt anyone.”

What does Khaled have to say about the jihadist culture of death now sweeping the world? The recent terror attacks in France; the Islamist suicide bombers who regularly blow up whole groups of innocent people in different countries, together with themselves, in acts of “martyrdom”; Syria at war with itself having killed some 200 000 people since 2011.

Or the murderous Islamic State proudly broadcasting the beheading of journalists - just this week threatening the beheading of two Japanese journalists if Japan does not pay a ransom of $200m for supporting the Western fight against IS.

And what would she say of the Palestinian struggle? Is the sad situation of the Palestinians only the fault of Israel? Or are they themselves to blame? Since 1969, South Africa has got rid of apartheid, which many people thought would never happen without a bloodbath. What qualities did we have that the Palestinians don’t? Surely something must have changed in her thinking.

When one meets a famous person, he or she always turns out to be shorter, or fatter, or less intelligent, or somehow less of a hero than the public image suggests. And if someone’s views remain exactly as they were four decades ago, the person’s integrity is immediately suspect, as if the poster image has replaced the real-life person.

Is BDS inviting only the poster girl? Or a real person who can reflect honestly on history and her role in it? Would Khaled openly endorse BDS’ oft-touted “non-violent” approach today? If so, she should be asked to say it publicly. If not, why is she their guest?  

Nearly five decades after her famous 1969 hijacking, Khaled now lives in Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel. She says: “I no longer think it’s necessary to prove ourselves as women by imitating men. I have learned that a woman can be a fighter, a freedom fighter, a political activist, and that she can fall in love, and be loved, she can be married, have children, be a mother.”

Perhaps she has also learnt that the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as simplistic as her poster.


Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.


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