It was an unexpected sight: A photo of Leila Khaled, the world’s first female airline hijacker, cradling an AK 47, featured in an adulating tweet from a young Socialist leader in the United States celebrating the 49th anniversary of Khaled’s hijacking of TWA flight 840.
Was it possible that an ambitious American political organizer was lionizing a terrorist who blew up a (then-empty) American plane?
The leader in question, Olivia Katbi-Smith, is co-head of the Portland, Oregon, chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America — the reformatted, millennial version of a once distinguished group whose Socialist roots extend back to Eugene V. Debs, five-time presidential candidate and one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
The membership of DSA has grown fourfold since Bernie Sanders’s presidential run in 2016. Likewise, its average age decreased from 68 to 33 between 2013 and now. After Sanders’s loss in the primary to Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump’s subsequent presidential win, on a national level the DSA’s new, young members marshaled their efforts to help elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Ilhan Omar (MN) to Congress on a progressive platform that promoted Medicare for all, quality housing, and free college tuition.
Since the election, the group has tipped further left and Katbi-Smith is part of a movement that is challenging traditional Democratic governance. But for supporters of Israel, there is a troubling side to her agenda: She helped lead the DSA to adopt a pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) plank in the group’s charter during its national convention on August 5, 2017, at the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. When 90 percent of the 697 delegates voted in favor of the BDS resolution, Katbi-Smith was jubilant. She and the other attendees waved a Palestinian flag and chanted, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.”
The political writer Paul Berman recently wrote in Tablet that, “Lately, DSA has had the misfortune to get taken over by a flash mob of fresh-faced hipsters just out of college. And the hipsters have naturally turned the august organization into a zoo of political fantasies of every preposterous and grisly sort, unto the people who … do not go very far to disguise the fact that they are chanting ‘Death to the Jews.’”
Katbi-Smith calls herself an “unapologetic Arab,” considers Che Guevara a hero and, until recently, used a photo of Leila Khaled as her Twitter header. In case there is any doubt about her attitude toward the Jewish state, she has tweeted, “Fuck Israel.”
The glorification of Khaled, a member of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), whose most famous terrorist activities took place 50 years ago, may seem out of date.
But a recent casual search of the Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts of pro-Palestinian activists shows that hundreds in Europe and the US have posted positively about Khaled, with a widespread realistic reach.
At a time when the empowerment of women is a worldwide rallying cry, there is growing evidence that competing Palestinian factions are promoting images of female terrorists as a means of shoring up their own flagging fortunes against Hamas. The PFLP is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union, the US, Israel, and Canada.
In response to criticism of her admiration for Khaled, Katbi-Smith tweeted: “Leila Khaled never harmed a single human being.”
But that statement does not accord with historical facts.
The deeds that were done
It is true that no one was killed during Khaled’s first terror act, the August 1969 hijacking of TWA flight 840 from Rome to Tel Aviv; however, people were undeniably put in harm’s way. After the plane was diverted to Damascus, terrified passengers were ordered to exit the aircraft quickly, because bombs had been planted in the nose cone.
Having endured the hijacking, children, parents, and elderly scrambled to get off the plane before it blew up. One elderly woman wet her pants in fear. Minutes after the evacuation was complete, the front of the plane was obliterated.
Most passengers were released that day except for six Israeli civilians. Four of the Israelis were released after 24 hours. The remaining two were detained by Syrian Authorities long after Khaled and her accomplice walked free. The Syrians were delighted to have been delivered pawns, free of charge by the PFLP, to secure a prisoner exchange with Israel.
Tense negotiations led three months later to the Israeli hostages’ release in exchange for 71 Syrian and Egyptian prisoners of war. For context, this all took place only two years after the Six Day War, when not a few Israelis had experienced heinous torture in Syrian prisons.
A year later, Khaled (after undergoing plastic surgery to make herself unrecognizable for the specific purpose of hijacking another plane), joined forces with Patrick Arguento, a member of Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, to attempt to hijack an El Al plane flying from Amsterdam to NYC.
During the flight, Khaled scooped a hand grenade from her brassiere, pulled the pin, and demanded entry to the cockpit. The Israeli pilot sent the plane into a dive, causing the hijackers to lose their footing, and Khaled was subdued by fellow passengers and security forces before she was able to shoot the gun she had withdrawn from her underwear.
In the struggle, her partner Arguento shot and wounded an El Al steward, and Arguento himself was shot and killed by a sky marshal. The plane was not hijacked, but the casualties included one dead and one injured. Lady Luck intervened to keep the grenade from detonating in the plane at 30,000 feet.
Genesis of Khaled the pop icon
Violence being an aphrodisiac, Khaled became an icon. As the British journalist Eileen Macdonald wrote in “Shoot the Women First,” “She shattered a million and one taboos overnight and revolutionised the thinking of hundreds of other angry young women around the world.”
Part of Khaled’s popularity was fueled by her sex appeal: Most press accounts glorifying her revolutionary action made mention of her appearance. In 1980, a Norwegian newspaper approvingly referred to her “bombs” — Norwegian slang for breasts.
She was a real-life Bond girl gone rogue. Her allure was enhanced by a famous photo of her in a military shirt, keffiyeh draped over a shock of shiny hair. On a finger holding a machine gun was a ring she’d made from a bullet and a grenade pin.
Khaled declined several requests for an interview with The Times of Israel, but in previous interviews has repeated the falsehood again and again that she never hurt anyone. She acknowledged in a 2006 documentary by Lina Makboul, “Leila Khaled: Hijacker,” that she knew her actions had upset and frightened the passengers, who were not a party to her grievances.
But she was emboldened by what she determined a more important aim: “We tried to explain to them that we had to do what we did… so that the world would understand our cause. We captured the planes to ask the world a question, ‘Who are the Palestinians?’”
Since Khaled’s hijackings, the PFLP has been responsible for dozens of other hijackings as well as gun, grenade, bomb, and suicide attacks in Israel and abroad.
More recently, the group claimed responsibility for the 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, and the 2011 home invasion and knife attack on the Fogel family of Itamar in the middle of the night that left both parents and three children, including a three-month old infant, dead. Five PFLP members were arrested as accomplices. The PFLP also claimed responsibility for the 2014 massacre in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, where six people were murdered with a gun, axes, and a meat cleaver.
As of 2106, Leila Khaled was still a member of the PFLP’s Political Bureau, and she travels the world to recruit followers to her cause, which is: return of all 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their homes in pre-1967 Israel, plus the West Bank and Gaza. She states it is “the duty of all progressive movements” to join her in her campaign to eradicate Israel and promote BDS.
A modern social-media movement
Katbi-Smith and hundreds of other young radicals have answered the call.
Even the PA is trying to get on the bandwagon. On December 24, the PA Mission in Berlin posted on its official Facebook page a drawing of Leila Khaled with one of the quotes she likes to repeat: “Resistance is not terrorism.”
The German Foreign Ministry was not amused, telling The Jerusalem Post, “We have made it clear to the Palestinian Mission that… the glorification of terrorism and a glorification of Lufthansa kidnapper Leila Khaled are completely unacceptable.”
The post was taken down.
But Khaled fever continues: In South Africa, the Johannesburg City Council adopted a motion presented by the ruling African National Congress and its radical ally, the Economic Freedom Fighters, to change the name of a major thoroughfare, now Sandton Drive, to Leila Khaled Drive.
Johannesburg is home to the majority of South Africa’s 70,000 Jews, and Sandton Drive houses the US Consulate. It is not clear how US consular officials will feel about living on a street named after a terrorist who blew up an American plane. (The motion will require additional steps before it comes law.)
Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, recently fired from CNN for calling for the liberation of Palestine “from the river to the sea,” expressed admiration for Khaled in a recent videotaped session of a conference held by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR). He warned against “romanticizing non-violence.” Discussing the well-founded anxiety of being a black man in the hands of US police, he raised his hands in a gesture made famous by #BlackLivesMatter, and said he preferred a different fate: “I wanna go Leila Khaled style.”
Khaled was even invited to be the keynote speaker at the European Parliament in 2017 for an event titled “The Role of Women in the Palestinian Popular Resistance.” Objections from the US and Israel that it was inappropriate for a convicted terrorist to speak at the European Parliament only days after it established a special committee on terrorism were ignored.
Why the love?
Israel says it is no coincidence that activists support Khaled, the BDS movement she promotes, and other anti-Israel campaigns, because former terrorists are now changing clothes and parading as progressives in Europe and the US to attract gullible new supporters (and their money) to fight Israel through “war by other means.”
According to a new report from Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs titled “Terrorists in Suits,” terror groups are changing their strategies in light of the conclusion that “armed conflict is not achieving its objective and is perceived as illegitimate by the majority of Western society.”
Consequently, “Hamas and PFLP operatives have infiltrated and adopted seemingly benign NGOs in the Palestinian Authority, Europe, North America and South Africa, for the purpose of advancing their ideological goal: the elimination of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
BDS is the latest iteration of the boycott strategy that has repeatedly been employed by Arab states, and their predecessors, against Jews in the Middle East since before the creation of the State of Israel.
BDS consciously models itself on the successful protests of the 1980s to bring down Apartheid in South Africa. In spite of the dissimilarities between the two cases, in an age of 140 character tweets, history counts less than memes, and today, NGOs run and operated by former members of terror groups are successfully exploiting “Western governmental funding, philanthropic foundations, financial platforms and civil society.”
It even appears that some PFLP members have not given up their terror activities. Khaled is accused by the Shin Bet of helping in 2011 to coordinate “between a PFLP command center in Syria and operatives in Jerusalem planning lethal attacks against Israelis.”
Yet, she is still making speeches in South Africa and Europe, appealing to the human rights impulses of her listeners while advocating hate.
Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, a Palestinian educator and peace activist who was pressured to resign from his professorship at Al Quds University in Jerusalem for taking a class of his students to Auschwitz, explains why many Arab-Americans like Katbi-Smith are still trying to redo the lost battles of the 20th century with Israel rather than moving on to a new paradigm of mutual acceptance.
“Young Arab-Americans are raised in the age of the social networks with its instant personal coverage of news, most of which is either fake or inciting or is not objective,” Dajani told The Times of Israel.
Dajani says these young people have picked up “the radical anti-Israel politics of the PFLP” rather than adopting models like “Gandhi or Martin Luther King.” He says this direction has been influenced also by frustration with “Israeli aggressive policies.”
Dajani promotes a different way of conflict resolution called “Wasatia” or “Moderation,” which teaches Islamic principles of compromise and nonviolence.
With regard to the manipulation of the population through images of terrorists, Dajani argues that the PA will make only limited use of Leila Khaled’s image, because she belongs to Fatah’s competition, the PFLP.
“Fatah’s interest in the reemergence of Khaled,” he says, “lies in their interest of having a Palestinian ally in its battle against Hamas.”
But, Dajani says, Khaled is of lesser importance because “she lives in Jordan, and more significantly, because her Marxist lingo of fighting imperialism and imperialists is highly outdated. Even in the heydays of Marxism-Leninism of the ’70s, this rhetoric attracted only a few Palestinian followers. Fighting ‘imperialism’ and ‘imperialists’ do not attract the imagination of young Muslim women of today.”
Another female terrorist ‘role model’
The PA, which is engaged in mortal combat with Hamas, has embraced a different female icon: Dalal Mughrabi, a Fatah terror operative who participated in the Coastal Road Massacre, an event referred to by Time magazine as “the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history.”
On March 11, 1978, Fatah operatives hijacked a taxi, killed its occupants, then hijacked a bus filled with Egged drivers and their families out on a weekend trip. They proceeded to enact an hours-long orgy of bloodshed and mayhem, that, by its conclusion, had caused the deaths of 38 civilians, including 13 children, and the wounding of 71.
The attack team had landed two days earlier on an Israeli beach, after motoring in Zodiac RIBs from Lebanon. Not sure where they had landed, they asked an Israeli wildlife photographer, Gail Rubin, for help. As soon as she gave them the information they requested, Mughrabi shot her. (Rubin, it turned out, was the niece of then-US Senator Abraham Ribicoff.)
According to a Fatah commander, the purpose of the attack was to disrupt the ultimately successful peace talks between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Mughrabi died in the attack.
The promotion of Mughrabi as a Palestinian heroine sees its most cynical application in the way the PA frames the national aspirations and goals of the Palestinian people to its 450,000 school children in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Ministry of Education has just completed a three-year roll-out of its first new curriculum since 2000.
According to a study conducted by the Institute for Cultural Peace and Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), which for 20 years has examined school materials around the world for adherence to UNESCO’s standards of peace and tolerance, the new curriculum does not include peacemaking as a goal. Neither does it mention past peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, nor mention Israel as a neighbor. In fact, it does not mention Israel at all. Rather, it doubles down on promoting violence and martyrdom as goals for the youth. And for the first time, it specifically encourages girls to be martyrs.
“We identified a strategy,” says IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff, “imposed by the PA and rolled out by PA Minister of Education Sabri Saidem, to maintain Palestinian school children in a state of readiness to commit acts of violence — and to endanger themselves in the process — when deemed necessary by the PA political elite.”
The lessons increasingly glorify death. And a new role for girls has been assigned. “The way shown for girls to attain gender equality is through martyrdom,” Sheff says.
Mughrabi is mentioned five times in the textbooks for grades 1-12. Although Mughrabi was a secular woman, she is portrayed in the textbooks with a hijab-style Palestinian keffiyeh painted over her photo.
Explains Dajani, “Religious rhetoric is currently the most fashionable lingo, particularly among the youth. Radical influence is observed in the lessons teaching that whoever dies as a martyr for their cause will be offered 70 virgins in paradise, or that a prayer in the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is worth 50,000 prayers elsewhere, or that when slavery is re-instituted, a Muslim husband can enjoy sexual pleasures with female slaves.” He adds that these are “false claims contradictory to [the] Quranic text.”
Further, says Dajani, “The content of the PA curriculum textbooks is influenced by extremists in its portrayal of women from a conservative perspective claiming that putting a headscarf is obligatory in Islam and misinterpreting Quranic verses to support this claim. So all female images in the textbooks, including that of leftist militant Dalal al-Mughrabi [are] wearing head scarfs, distorting her Marxist past and making her having religious motivations.”
As early as fifth grade, Palestinian girls are invited to follow in Mughrabi’s footsteps and sacrifice their lives: “And she irrigated the land of Palestine with her pure blood; to create a flourishing revolutionary history that will never calm down.”
Signs of pushback
Britain’s Dame Louise Ellman, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, recently published her International Development Assistance (Values Promoted in Palestinian Authority Schools) bill which would, “prohibit international development assistance to schools operated by the Palestinian National Authority that do not promote values endorsed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.”
Ellman wrote in a scathing oped on March 20 about the PA’s “lessons in hatred,” which are funded through the Department for International Development’s aid to the PA education budget, and called for an annual review of how such funds are used.
A few months earlier, Bild published an article highly critical of the German government for financing this curriculum.
German MP and Foreign Affairs Committee member, Frank Müller-Rosentritt, was outraged, asking why taxpayer funds were being used to stoke hatred and violence in school books for the very young: “[This is] unbelievable,” he tweeted. “Children should receive an education for a better future, not be educated for hate and violence. The federal government must provide an explanation. German tax money should not flow into terror propaganda.”
German MP and member of the Budget Committee Michael Leutert of the left-wing “Die Linke” party railed: “The indoctrination of children in schools of repressive regimes is highly dangerous. I grew up in the GDR, and I know what I am talking about.”
In January, the Swiss newspaper SonnstagZeitung reported that Switzerland would join the EU, UK, Germany and Finland in “taking action” over contributions to funding this curriculum.
In February, the US General Accounting Office released a previously classified report showing that UNRWA and the State Department had both lied to Congress that UNRWA teachers had taught supplemental material to correct the problematic content in the school books.
US Representative Lee Zeldin (R-NY), who succeeded in persuading the GAO to declassify the report, told The Times of Israel, “A school setting should be used to prepare young boys and young girls, young men and young women, to be positive leaders in the world — to leave this world better than they found it, to be engaged in civics and diplomacy and science and bringing people together.
“The school setting is entirely inappropriate to utilize for recruiting individuals to violence. Every day inside of a classroom is an opportunity to fill the students’ brains with critically important information to become a world citizen, and to have that time spent instead recruiting a child or young man or young woman to violence is outrageous,” said Zeldin.
How to raise a martyr 101
Between 2016 and 2018, the PA Ministry of Education rolled out its new curriculum in tranches; the first, for grades 1-4, was offered for the 2016-2017 school year. Grades 5-11 got their new textbooks in 2017-2018, and then grade 12 received theirs this year. Before the new books, Palestinian students in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had been taught the Jordanian curriculum, while students in Gaza used Egyptian textbooks.
Much to the concern of IMPACT-se, the new textbooks do not offer the children an improved education. “Peace is not presented as preferred or even possible in the new Palestinian curriculum,” the report says.
Sheff says there is a very clear educational process to radicalize the students — evident in all subjects, and with increasing sophistication from first to 12th grades.
First graders learn the letter “h” (ha) through the word shahid (martyr), hujum (attack), and harab (run away). Arguments for martyrdom are forced into math, physics and biology.
“Rather than use apples and oranges to learn to add in grade four,” Sheff points out, “they add martyrs. Seventh graders learn Newton’s Second Law of Motion with drawings of children in keffiyehs attacking Israeli soldiers with sling shots.”
Palestinian school children are taught that martyrdom and jihad are “the most important things in life.”
“I am very concerned about the future prospects for students whose education does not accord with generally-accepted standards of tolerance of the other,” says Dajani.
“The PA is offering now what I would describe as national education which in its essence is conflict education…. The Palestinian curriculum should be designed to teach the core moderation principles and skills of tolerance, cooperation, empathy, open-minded dialogue, through lessons emphasizing each concept. The curriculum should be designed to reinforce moderate social behavior and religious values through practical activities, games and active engagements with the community,” Dajani says.
On International Women’s Day this year, the valorization of the two female terrorists was taken out of the classroom and broadcast on official Palestinian television and social media. According to a Palestinian Media Watch translation, in one of the many commemorations, a female news presenter said, “It will never be possible to review the struggle of the Palestinian women without [mentioning] the two self-sacrificing fighters Dalal Mughrabi and Laila Khaled – the first woman who hijacked an Israeli plane – as the most prominent names of the Palestinian resistance.” (While Khaled was involved in the hijacking of TWA flight 840, the later hijacking of an Israeli plane was not successful.)
Zeldin is concerned that the Democratic Party is not acting decisively enough to fend off the party’s radical elements, such as DSA, that openly advocate anti-Israel incitement and support for terrorism.
“In 2008, 2012, and 2016 at the DNC,” he told The Times of Israel, “there was a move among delegates to change the party platform to include certain positions and messaging that was not in line with the pro-Israel, anti-BDS, pro-Jewish beliefs that fortunately most from the Democratic party had at that time.
“In 2020 at the Convention, that move is going to be made again,” Zeldin said. “And if they don’t confront those forces right now that are trying to take control of the party, it’s going to become a bigger headache for the DNC.”