Palestine’s ‘beautiful terrorist’

Notorious: Freedom fighter Leila Khaled speaks to the Weekend Post
Notorious: Freedom fighter Leila Khaled speaks to the Weekend Post

Hijacker turned grandmother Leila Khaled talks about her passions

The word “terrorist” usually conjures up fearful images of bombs, guns and fanaticism so it’s somewhat surprising to find a woman convicted of acts of terror speaking about cooking, empty nest syndrome and her grandchildren.

Especially so for a woman who underwent numerous plastic surgeries to hide her identity, a woman who hijacked four planes.

Leila Khaled, dubbed “the beautiful terrorist”, is in equal parts, and depending on who you speak to, adored and reviled, but at the core she is a wife and a mother.

Khaled, in Port Elizabeth this week to rally support for the Palestinian cause, became the poster girl for Palestinian militancy when, in 1969, she hijacked a Trans World Airlines plane flying from Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport in Rome, Italy to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel.

It’s difficult to make the connection between the fiery young woman dressed in a white suit who boarded that flight and the demure 70-year-old grandmother sitting in the SABC offices in Port Elizabeth.

It’s even more difficult to fathom that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) member is the same woman who took the drastic step of undergoing plastic surgery, six times, changing her appearance so she could take part in the Dawson’s Field hijackings – a series of hijackings of four jet aircraft bound for New York City and one for London.

It was these acts, and a now famous picture of Khaled draped in a keffiah holding a gun, which catapulted her into the public arena and saw her dubbed “the beautiful terrorist”.

It is these acts that still affect her to this day.

The reality of her past was evident again when her granddaughter, Jasmina, was born four months ago.

“I wasn’t granted a visa to travel to Kuwait and be there for her birth. That was heartbreaking, but it’s just one of the sacrifices you have to make,” she said.

The sacrifices she talks about are giving up time with family to take part in training exercises and missions.

It was also giving up the looks which made her an icon so she could go undetected when taking on missions.

“When you really believe in something, when you are really passionate, you are willing to give it your all. I was ready to lay down my life, give part of my soul, so my face was small in comparison,” said the dark-haired woman who eventually had her face reconstructed back to its original appearance after the mission.

Khaled is very aware of the impact her actions have had and of her notoriety, which is something she did not want to impact on her sons Bader, 32, and Bashar, 29, while they grew up.

“I wanted them to have their own lives, be their own people and not live in my shadow,” she said, adding that this meant that she prohibited her sons from telling people that she was their mother.

Her sons are now out of the house, leaving her and her physician husband Fayez Rashid Hilal suffering from empty nest syndrome.

“It’s just the two of us now. We are happy but miss them,” said Khaled, who uses her free time to participate in her favourite activity, swimming.

“Family means everything to me. As refugees, we are scattered all around the world. For me family means love and security,” she said.

When the family does get together she celebrates by cooking up a storm.

“When we have people over I cook and everyone seems to like what I make,” said the woman whose love affair with food started as a little girl who dreaded leaving her favourite treat, dates, behind when her family fled Palestine.

Khaled said she went from being a happy little girl born to cafe owner parents in Haifa to a trained fighter because of her desire to ensure Palestinian refugees a safe return to their homes.

She now works as the PFLP’s chief of the department of refugees and right of return.

-Eleanor Douglas-Meyers

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