By Sarah Bates
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2796

Leila Khaled—armed resistance for liberation

To mark International Women's Day, Socialist Worker remembers Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled
Issue 2796
Leila Khaled gripping machine gun

Khaled toting a machine gun and wearing a keffiyeh is one of the most enduring images of Palestinian liberation.

Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled was just four years old when she fled for her life. Born in the city of Haifa, Khaled was one of nearly a million victims of the 1948 Nakba—the systematic expulsion of Palestinians from their land.

It was the most ­conclusive wave of ethnic cleansing that helped found the state of Israel and left a lasting ­impression on a young Khaled. Growing up in Jordan as a refugee, Khaled became interested in pan-Arab activism and joined the Arab Nationalist Movement at 15 years old. 

Her most famous acts would come eleven and twelve years later, in a desperate bid to draw attention to Palestinian liberation. By now, Khaled was a member of the left wing group, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Khaled, alongside Salim Issawi, hijacked TWA Flight 840 on 29 August 1969, diverting the plane from Tel Aviv to Damascus in Syria. 

On landing in Syria, hijackers blew up the nose section of the Boeing 707 and were promptly arrested by Syrian authorities, to be released without charge by October.  “The plane hijackings were tactical. Just for a short time, just to ring a bell for the world and make people ask the question—why?” She argued that the action showed, “We the Palestinians are not only refugees. We are a people that has a political and a human goal.”

Just over a year later, gripping two grenades in her pockets, Khaled tried again.  On 6 September 1970, she and Patrick Arguello, a Nicaraguan activist, attempted to hijack the El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York City. But this time it ended in disaster. They tried to storm the cockpit, Khaled pulled the pins out of her grenades, but armed guards quickly shot Arguello dead. 

It was part of the Dawson’s Fields series of hijackings, where four planes were simultaneously hijacked by the PFLP. The other three ­managed to successfully land at an abandoned RAF airstrip in Jordan, but Khaled’s plane was diverted to London. 

As well as flying the flag for Palestinian liberation, hijackers were demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners detained in Europe and Israel. Khaled was again released on 1 October in exchange for British hostages taken in other planes. Her tactics ­amplified Palestinians’ voices, but individual acts of resistance didn’t offer a way towards the fundamental change that a mass movement could. It was a strategy of despair as well as wholly justified rage. 

Despite years of monstering Khaled as a terrorist, the only person killed in either ­hijacking was Arguello, after Israeli officers shot him in the back. 

Khaled remains ­unapologetic about the role of armed struggle for Palestinian liberation. “We cannot say that non‑violent resistance alone will achieve our rights,” she said. “We are facing an apartheid state, Zionism as a movement, the Americans, and in general, the West, which supports Israel. When the balance of forces changes, then we can start thinking about negotiating.”

In later years she settled in Jordan and remained a ­leading figure in the PFLP. She’s spoken out against negotiations, such as the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, which legitimised and entrenched Israeli occupation. “It brought catastrophe on us”, she said in 2014. “The number of settlers has doubled, more land is being confiscated, and, of course, the wall has been built. “These negotiations, now, are meant to help Israel and not the Palestinians.”

The same programme of ethnic cleansing that forced Khaled to flee 74 years ago is still in operation. Among the many things Khaled has contributed to the struggle, the foremost must surely be that Palestinians are not just victims but determined to resist.

This is the fourth in a series of columns on radical women to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Go to

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance