Plane hijacker turned politician disapproves of today's 'terrorism'


Palestine: Leila Khaled, who, in another era, was the symbol of the Palestinian struggle, makes her first visit to Ireland, writes Deaglán de Bréadún, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

In the era of 9/11 and bombs on the London underground it may be hard to believe there was once a certain glamour attached to people who carried out what would now be widely condemned as terrorist actions.

Nobody epitomised that more at one time than Leila Khaled, a member of the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who hijacked two passenger aircraft in 1969 and 1970. Far from incurring universal outrage, this elegant young woman became a media icon, wearing a kaffiyeh on her head and a ring on her finger made from a bullet and the pin of a hand grenade.

Times have changed. Despite her personal disapproval of the recent bombs in London, Khaled was refused a visa last month to enter the UK, although she had been allowed to do so legally on two previous occasions as a guest of the maverick MP George Galloway. However, she came to Ireland this week on her first visit to this country, gave a talk by video-link to a meeting in Belfast on Tuesday and will speak in Dublin tonight and Cork and Kinsale tomorrow.

She is a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian "parliament in exile". The council is based in Amman, where Khaled now lives. Born in Haifa, she was only four years old in 1948 when the state of Israel was being established, and her family fled to Lebanon to escape the fighting.

The hardship of life as a refugee pushed her in the direction of radical politics.

Her father could not work after suffering a heart attack and so the family depended totally on UN assistance.

There were no toys, no new clothes; schoolbooks had to be shared for the classes that took place in a tent. "Why do we live this way?", the children would ask their mother.

"Because you are not in your country," was her constant reply.

On August 29th, 1969, Khaled hijacked a TWA flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. The aircraft diverted to Damascus where the passengers were released and so was Khaled, after a few weeks.

She does not regret it. "We had to do something to attract the attention of the world," she says. "We were very keen about not bringing any harm to passengers or the crew."

Khaled then underwent plastic surgery to disguise her identity and, on September 6th, 1970, herself and a Nicaraguan- American, Patrick Arguello (26), hijacked an Israeli El Al plane between Amsterdam and New York. Arguello was shot dead by sky marshals and the plane made an emergency landing at Heathrow. Khaled was held for 28 days and then released by the late Edward Heath in exchange for 56 western hostages taken by the PFLP.

However, she believes her actions and those of the London bombers have nothing in common. "I denounce it totally.

"It's really a terrorist act, I believe. It's not in the interests of anyone. Those who did it, they are real terrorists, because they are aiming at innocent people, and nobody knows what they want." She was "really scared" for her friends in London when she heard the news.

Nor does she agree with the young Palestinians who carry out suicide bombings in Israel. However, she sees them as politically motivated and feels their reasons should be explored.

Under the "humiliating" Israeli occupation, there is "no difference" between life and death for these young people.

Somewhat unfashionably, Leila Khaled describes herself as a Marxist. "Marxism is not a fashion anyhow," she says. "Just because the Soviet Union collapsed, it doesn't mean the theory is wrong. The application and implementation are wrong, and not the theory itself."