There was once a time not so long ago when the world seemed to be full of revolutionary heroes. These heroes were both men and women. The actions and accompanying commitment of these individuals inspired millions of others to join movements and organizations dedicated to a vision of social justice and freedom that understood colonialism and racism to be their primary opposition. From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rosa Parks; from Huey Newton to Assata Shakur; and Che Guevara to Leila Khaled, the list of such individuals is too great to recount here. Their enemies included secret and not-so-secret police, intelligence agencies dedicated to their murder, and governments both liberal and reactionary whose lot lay with the imperial powers in Washington, London and elsewhere in the North. The presence of such men and women made them targets for those opposed to their vision. Simultaneously, the fact of their stature provided them with a media presence created a public awareness of their cause which helped recruit adherents and supporters.
During the first Gulf war I worked with an antiwar group in Olympia, WA. There was a young woman of Syrian heritage named Leila in the group. It was during a conversation about the Palestinians that the subject of Leila Khaled came up. After five minutes of conversation or so, Leila mentioned that she was named after Khaled. I knew that Khaled’s youth, beauty and media savvy had made her a media favorite during the hijackings and other actions she had participated in. I also remembered the spray painted silhouettes of Khaled that appeared on the walls of squats and at the Goethe Universitat in Frankfurt. However, this young woman was the first person I had met who was named in her honor.
Recently, Pluto Press published a small biography of Leila Khaled as part of its Revolutionary Lives Series. It is titled Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation. Authored by Sarah Irving, a freelancer who has written about environmental and Palestinian issues, this biography looks at Khaled’s life from its beginnings in a Palestinian village occupied by the Israelis to her current activism. Culling information from Khaled’s biography My People Shall Live, newspaper and journal articles spanning her life and recent interviews, Irving’s book takes a comprehensive look at a life fully-lived.
For those who remember the hijackings Khaled participated in, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation brings those events back to life. In addition, she provides the reader with Khaled’s insights and descriptions of how those hijackings unfolded. Khaled also touches briefly on her emotions during those actions. Irving describes the determination of Khaled’s enemies to kill her, a determination that resulted in her sister and sister’s fiancée being murdered by mistake. She also describes the life of Khaled’s family as refugees and relatives of a revolutionary wanted by Israel and a myriad of other governments. The Palestinian movement Khaled first entered was quite different than that which exists now. Religious elements had minimal influence. Indeed, the primary divisions in the movement arose in the political/economic arena. The primary organization, Al Fatah, was what was then termed a bourgeois nationalist movement, while the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) defined itself as a Marxist one. Khaled was (and is) a member of the latter, but seems to have been only minimally involved in the internecine warfare that occasionally erupted between the factions. Her discussion of the influence of Muslim culture in the Palestinian movement and how it effects the role of women in the Palestinian struggle is an important part of this book and worthy of further exploration. This is especially true given Khaled’s long history in the movement and her lifelong insistence on the need for women to be involved. A sidebar to this discussion is her telling about incidents where some of the men pretending to be strict enforcers of the hijab in Gaza following Hamas’ victory turned out to be informers for the Israeli military. This story points out the potentially reactionary nature of a nationalism that depends on cultural elements to define it while rejecting anticapitalist economic analyses.
Khaled discusses the current situation in Palestine. In her opinion, the Oslo accords should never have been signed. The continued control of Palestinian economic, social and daily life by Israelis and their paid police insures the perpetuation of the Occupation. Her opposition to the Accords is often characterized by her enemies as being an opposition to peace. Khaled’s response is simple. When there are no more Israeli soldiers, police, and other agents of the Tel Aviv government occupying the territories, then there will be peace. Until then, the struggle continues. As if to emphasize this, some events arranged by Irving’s publisher to announce the book to the British reading public have been cancelled because of threats of violence. This fact proves Khaled’s continuing relevance, while also intensifying the need to publicize the book.
The struggle of the Palestinians is a different looking struggle than it was when Leila Khaled’s name first became known to the world. Yet, it is the same struggle. Heroic figures like those mentioned above do not seem to be part of that struggle right now. However, their stories are important and need to be told. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation does a great job of telling one such story.