Palestinian hijacker-turned housewife regrets nothing Former revolutionary maintains extremism but rhetoric has lost appeal

October 31, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan -- The world knew her as the cool, beautiful skyjacker, who offered the safety pin from her live grenade to the pilot in the cockpit as a souvenir, and told the passengers to relax with some champagne.

Leila Khaled, the "girl revolutionary" whose attempts to hijack airplanes in 1969 and 1970 echo in the security checks that airline passengers undergo today, now is a mother and a housewife.

She remains unapologetic and unrepentant about her activities as a Palestinian terrorist. Her rhetoric remains extreme. But it now seems dated, somehow dulled through the years by repetition, and blunted by the new reality of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I haven't changed. The whole situation has changed," she insists, in an interview in Amman.

Things were simpler in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Palestinian cause fit the times, and shock value came in the name of The Revolution.

She boarded a TWA jetliner intent on making the Palestinian cause known. She did that with flair that made her the heroine for revolutionaries of the time.

As the pilot nervously eyed her grenade, she ordered him to fly over Haifa, Israel, from where she had fled at age 4 with her family from Israeli soldiers. Eventually, the aircraft landed in Damascus, Syria, where a companion blew up the cockpit of the plane after the passengers and crew had left the aircraft. She thanked the passengers for their "kind attention and cooperation."

A year later, she tried to hijack an Israeli El Al airliner flying from Amsterdam to New York. A fellow hijacker was killed in a shootout, and Ms. Khaled was subdued, still clutching her grenades. She was held by British police until another airplane hijacking by Palestinians led to her exchange for the hostages on that aircraft.

That lurid background sits incongruously on the hospitable 51-year-old matron who now lives with her husband, a physiotherapist, and two children in Amman.

Amman erupted in violence in 1970 after her hijack attempt. Palestinian hijackers took three other planes the same day, and King Hussein of Jordan used the incidents to declare war on the Palestinian groups operating freely in Jordan. The bloody event became known as "Black September." But Ms. Khaled said she now has a Jordanian passport and moved back to Amman three years ago without any complications.

Indeed, she seems untouched by the consequences of her acts. She claims Israel twice tried to kill her in Beirut, Lebanon: by rocketing a house where she stayed in 1970 and by planting an explosive under her bed in 1971.

But revenge, if once intended, seems now foregone. The location of her home is not secret, and she spends much of her time going from one world conference to another to discuss women's issues.

"I think [Israel] has a gentleman's agreement with the Jordanian government" not to exact such revenge, she said. But she shrugged. "I don't think I am safe. We are always unsafe."

Her features have softened in the years. The allure that captivated the press cameras in the 1970s is not lost, despite three plastic surgeries she underwent for disguise after the first hijacking, and the pounds added to her once slim frame.

She rejects the 1993 peace agreement made by Israel with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. is "a traitor," she says.

"I am still sticking to our goals that Palestine is Arabic and is for us, not some other people," she says.

She recalls little of Haifa except her family's hasty evacuation at the outbreak of the 1948 war when Israel was created.

As she grew up in Lebanon with other poor Palestinian refugees, the anger of being forced from her home mingled with the revolutionary politics of the time. Her heroes were Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung, her politics Marxist and radical. The 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank, was her turning point.

"Expecting Arab victory, I refused to believe the outcome," she said in a 1971 autobiography, "My People Shall Live." "I awoke from my dream. I smashed my radio and went into a prolonged period of silence. My whole world had collapsed. To add to my despair, Che Guevara, my hero, was assassinated."

The next year she joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an extremist Marxist faction, and volunteered for the "Special Operations Squad."

On Aug. 29, 1969, wearing natty slacks and a wide-brimmed hat, with a book entitled "My Friend Che" in her hands, she boarded TWA Flight 840 in Rome.

Ms. Khaled adamantly rejects the term terrorist. "Nobody was hurt. All the time we had very strict orders not to hurt anyone," she insists.

But her 1971 memoirs, dictated when she was just 27, suggest a more reckless determination. As she waited for the plane she noticed a small girl seated nearby wearing a "Make Friends" button.

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