An interview with Leila Khaled

One of the world’s most evocative revolutionaries, Palestinian Leila Khaled, is in South Africa. Janet Smith spoke to a woman whose only desire is the liberation of her people.

Janet Smith: You’ve spoken often about a duty – not only as a freedom fighter, but also as a refugee. What are those roles and are they distinct when you are a Palestinian not living in your own land?

Leila Khaled is in South Africa until February 15 on a Boycott Divestment Sanctions South Africa fundraising and speaking tour. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko. Credit: THE STAR

Leila Khaled: I think a refugee loses dignity, besides losing their homeland. There’s a lot of suffering. People were forced to leave our country (from 1948, when Israel was declared a state); many, like myself, were young. Then you live without anything. You don’t have a house, you don’t have anything. And the world dealt with us after that only as refugees, while this was a political issue.

Palestinians had been replaced by people who did not own this land, who did not, at any time, have a relationship with that land. It was such an injustice.

But as for us, we didn’t give up. We are looking forward to our right to return to our homeland, which is guaranteed by international law, the UN, through Resolution 194 of 1948. We are still refugees, 66 years on.

What this injustice did for me was that I was dreaming of being a freedom fighter. All Palestinians led a very harsh life until we grew up and began to understand what it means to be a refugee. So, the minute the revolution broke out, the armed struggle after 1967 when all of Palestine was occupied, I and others like me joined the revolution.

We learnt from the history of other people that, to claim your rights, you have to fight for it. But we did not achieve our goals. The only thing we have achieved is our national identity, because we were not recognised as a people before.

I am in the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), responsible for refugees and the right of return, and this means I have to work on spreading and promoting the culture of the right of return.

Ask any Palestinian: “What’s your dream?” And they will say: “To go back.” This is something emotional but we have to work for it, and this differs from one place to another. A refugee in Gaza has an asylum different to one living in an Arab country, where they might have to face another aggression. In Europe, for example, it’s possible to promote BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) as a means to face the aggression on our people in occupied Palestine.

Remember, the refugees are also in the West Bank and in Galilee, where they are forbidden to go to their villages and homes and are now displaced.

There is a big connection between raising awareness and, at the same time, using all means of resistance, including armed struggle.

JS: You said you joined the armed struggle and became a plane hijacker because you wanted to ring a bell for the world and make people ask: Why? What are the bells now? Are people still asking why?

LK: We have rung the bell already and the Palestinian issue is on the international agenda. It’s no more questioned. But the problem is that the world is not using all its means to help the Palestinians fight for their rights.

We hear people speaking about supporting the Palestinian struggle, but when it comes to issue of refugees, people should be saying, how will 5 or 6 million people go back? People don’t have the idea that the Palestinians have the right to go to their homeland and to practise the right for self-determination.

It’s not applicable to say that a people can decide a future without being on their land. Who is the population of Palestine? It is the refugees outside and those living inside who are forbidden by the Israelis to go back to their villages and their land, even with the Palestinian Authority there, unless Israel gives permission.

We have a lot of work to do on the international level to get people to understand that.

JS: What is the end of this conflict? Is it to establish a democratic state where everybody can decide, whether Jews or non-Jews?

LK: We are looking to establish a state as human beings. When we say democratic, we would like everybody to have the same rights, the same duties, on this piece of land. It’s a human solution, and so we ask: Why don’t the Israelis look at it this way?

Of course, there are other means. Now we receive solidarity from people all over the world, and that’s the big difference compared to before.

JS: The Middle East is not united on who should govern Palestine. It’s also in turmoil in so many other ways, not only in how to remove the occupier. What’s your feeling on support from the region?

LK: According to the Arab regimes, none. They just don’t say it verbally, but practically, it’s only the masses who support the freedom of Palestinians.

JS: The PFLP banned hijackings more than 40 years ago. Some operatives were even expelled when they disagreed with the new policy. Is that right? Other than the hijackings, the most prominent act of war from your side was the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi, a tourism minister and right-wing leader in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), who pushed for so-called “population transfer”. He is reported to have called Palestinians “lice” and “cancer”.

What is the current position? Your organisation said it was responsible for the attack on the Jerusalem synagogue in November that left five worshippers dead.

LK: We are a part of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). We’re among the founders of PLO. The programme of PLO calls for achieving the rights of Palestinans even by armed struggle. We’re a part of this, but of course, there have been some differences between us and the programme. But still, we’re all looking to end the oppression and just seeing how Israel is dealing with us all, even with the moderate people like Fatah (the organisation of Yasser Arafat, now represented by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority), it’s not a partner of peace. But we’re saying, this isn’t a religious conflict. It’s a conflict of rights. Yet the Israelis wanted to change the face of the conflict, saying it is a religious one, to gain the support of the international community.

We don’t care about being Christian or Muslim or Jews. This is about the rights of people. We’re not targeting Jews. We are targeting occupants.

JS: What is your view of Islamic State?

LK: I recall what the Zionists did in Palestine. They went to villages and killed the women, men and children, and spread the news about it. There was no social media then. Now there’s social media, so they can kill and show that this is the end of anyone who crosses us.

But slaughtering people… it’s so brutal that even in nightmares, you don’t see it. Of course we consider them terrorists. They’re destroying our societies. They’re destroying human beings from inside.

But after the US occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, they founded the alternative by supporting what’s now the Islamic State with all means of weapons and training, and even communication services and so on. Then they discovered they cannot end them. They want just to contain them.

JS: Israel’s economic growth slowed to 2.6 percent last year – the worst performance in five years. It looks like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to face a tough election on March 17. Almost a fifth of Israel’s people live in poverty. There’s frustration among ordinary Israelis; they protested in the streets about the cost of living in 2011, and so on. It looks like the only politician who can unseat Netanyahu might be (former foreign minister) Tzipi Livni (ex-spy and peace negotiator). What are your views on the immediate future for Israel? Could another leader, other than Netanyahu, who is obsessed with security issues, make a difference to the liberation of Palestinians?

LK: There’s no left wing in Israeli politics. There’s only the right wing and the extremists. The problem is that society is moving more and more to the right, and this is really fearful, because when you have extremes, then this will lead the society to chaos at the end of the day, and the conflict will escalate.

There’ll be more blood, more killing, more confiscating land, more demolishing houses. And in this election, yes, those sides will compete for the Knesset and the position of prime minister, but they won’t be looking, say, for how to rebuild the destruction that happened in Gaza last year, where everything is gone.

They aren’t giving any hope of a solution for us or for a right of return for us. They’re just thinking of themselves. Yes, Israeli people went out onto the streets to protest the economic policies, but then it vanished, which means that this society has a lot of contradictions. But when it comes to the Palestinians, they’re united against any solution.

They just want the same thing as apartheid.

JS: Are you still a Marxist? How do feel about Cuban-American relations? Also, what’s your view of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and the changes that have happened there since he succeeded Hugo Chavez? You’ve said those are the perfect societies.

LK: I’m still a Marxist, very much so. In terms of Cuba, I think what has happened recently is about preventive policy. It has resulted in the release of some prisoners, and that’s good, but as Castro has said, it doesn’t mean we’re going to change our social system.

I think it’s an intelligent move for Cuba to open this window, and I think that in Cuba, the people understand and trust their leadership.

In Venezuela, the opposition is strongly supported by the Americans, but Chavez was big on the mentality of dignity, and that needs time to become a solid establishment.

But that mentality of dignity is something we can all learn from. We must have it.