Leila Khaled marching with other PFLP leaders in the Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon during a demonstration marking the 40th anniversary of the PFLP, 9 December 2007. (Matthew Cassel)
One of the most legendary figures of the Palestinian struggle for national liberation, Leila Khaled was recently in the Palestinian refugee camps of northern Lebanon. Visiting for the first time since last summer’s battle between the non-Palestinian Islamist group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army, during which the Nahr al-Bared camp was destroyed, Khaled sat down with EI editor Matthew Cassel to discuss Annapolis, Nahr al-Bared, and how the Palestinian movement must move forward.
A refugee herself, Khaled was forced to flee Haifa as a young girl in 1948 and later became the first female member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1967 and remains a member in the PFLP Leadership Council. Khaled put herself and Palestine in the front pages of newspapers by hijacking two passenger airplanes in 1969 and 1970, under the PFLP motto “Going after the enemy everywhere.”
Forty years later, Palestine is still not yet liberated and the situation of the refugees is as dire as ever. More than 30 civilian refugees were killed during last summer’s camp battle, and thousands of refugees in Lebanon are wondering when they can return to their camp, let alone their homes and property in historic Palestine.
ELECTRONIC INTIFADA: Recently the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority met in Annapolis, Maryland to try and advance the “peace process.” However, the fate of Jerusalem, the occupation and the right of return for Palestinian refugees are no closer to being resolved. Do Palestinians, especially a refugee like yourself, believe that these types of negotiations will ever bring about a real solution to the conflict?
LEILA KHALED: What happened in Annapolis is a process only, a process that will [only] give the Israelis more time [to make] more settlements and at the same time normalize the relationship between Israel and the Arabs as a whole, not every country by itself, and to make a big distance between the Palestinian question and the Arabs.
By the way, the reference [point for a political settlement at] that conference [was] that [of] the United States … and not the United Nations … And while the meeting was going on the Israelis were making incursions into Gaza, [raiding] in the West Bank … attacking and arresting people.
It’s a game, and we know that very well and we are against negotiations with the Israelis because the balance of forces is not for us, neither on the Palestinian level or the Arab level or the international level. Negotiations could be efficient and of interest to us [only] when we are nearer to being on equal sides. In history negotiations were between the fighting parties when they became on the same level. But we are not on the same level. We are still under occupation, we are still refugees — what [do] we [have] to negotiate?
They say it’s a peace process but we don’t see the peace, we see the process. It’s just to make public relations, [nothing] more. That’s why we are against it.
EI: Do you consider Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, especially the Palestinian refugees?
LK: Yes. He was elected by our people as the president of the [Palestinian] Authority. And in the executive committee and the legislative council he was elected as the chief of the PLO [the Palestinian Liberation Organization]. So he is legitimate. But let’s think again, what is it to be legitimate? … In the stage of national liberation to be legitimate [means] to fight our enemies.
EI: Now that Palestinians seem divided, especially with the recent fighting between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza, what do you see as the way forward for Palestinians to continue their struggle to bring about their rights?
LK: First of all, we [the PFLP] condemned the way that Hamas used [force] in solving the interior contradictions, because the main contradiction is with occupation, and that is not of the culture of the Palestinian struggle.
In all the revolutions in the world there were differences in ideas and differences in attitudes, but always people [resort] to national dialogue among factions [to solve them]. We [the PFLP] were against the Oslo agreements but still we are part of the PLO. What Hamas did is condemned by us and by others. So we are asking Hamas to retreat .. and come back to the larger revolution. … On the other side, there are many problems in the Israeli society and in the government and in the Knesset, but they don’t solve them with arms.
The [Palestinian] Authority has taken many measures against general liberties and these measures were expressed by decrees by the president … To be democratic is to give more freedom to the people despite that they are under siege or being imprisoned in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We don’t accept that the PA goes to negotiations with the Israelis, meetings with the Israelis every two weeks according to what [US Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice asks them [for the sake of] public relations, not solving any problem of our people, neither on the economical [level] or the security [level] or the political level … Israel sees that only the whole issue is how to secure itself from us while we are the ones who are suffering from occupation.
[Secondly, we must] rebuild the PLO because the PLO has become marginalized. So we are also mobilizing our people so that the PLO is the sole representative and the legitimate representative of the Palestinians inside and outside Palestine. So really doing it will give us more strength that all factions can be part of it, including the Islamic groups.
Thirdly, on the international level, these meetings will reach nowhere — but all the time we were calling for an international conference led by the United Nations based on [UN] resolutions beginning from 194 until now that give us our rights. This conference [should be about] how to implement the resolutions because resolution 194 was [issued] in 1948, now it’s 59 years [on]. It’s not [about] having more resolutions but how to implement the resolutions that were taken by the international community [through] the United Nations.
This is the only way. But all this is based on our resistance. Without resistance we cannot get it.
EI: And what kind of resistance are you referring to?
LK: All kinds of resistance, resistance means everything. Beginning with the word “no” and ending with holding arms. And in between there are many ways, [including] a political struggle, a popular struggle. They want us to accept them as they are: racist, discriminating, an apartheid regime in Israel. This is what we don’t want. We cannot coexist with such people. But we can coexist with people like us. This is the way we are looking for. And when we speak about an independent state it’s not the [just] end result of the historic conflict between us and the Israelis and the Zionists. It’s a step forward to have a democratic state in Palestine for all of us. But the key or the solution is the return of the Palestinians — without that this conflict will continue.
EI: What do you think is the best way for internationals to support and do solidarity work with Palestine?
LK: I think we have received many means of solidarity with us as a people under occupation and in the diaspoa … When we are speaking it is an act of supporting the Palestinians because you are spreading our word whether it’s by Internet or newspapers or all kinds of media, just to spread the story of the Palestinians that there was and still is injustice against them. Now there are other means that people can extend treatment like dealing with health, making workshops with children, women, supporting some projects for the betterment of the lives of Palestinians. These are all kinds of solidarity. Im not here to say what means because the progressive forces in the world [have] extended their support and their solidarity by their own means and it was effective and is still effective.
EI: How does the destruction of Nahr al-Bared fit into the history of the Palestinian struggle?
LK: The camps [reflect] the historic crime that is inflicted by the Zionists and the imperialists against the Palestinians. [Since] the beginning of the armed struggle for revolution the camps are the target … because they are the witness of the Nakba. It’s not by coincidence that we had massacres in Palestine in the camps, and Jenin is one of those massacres that happened by the Israelis.
The camps in Lebanon which also faced massacres, Tel al-Zater, in Nabatiyeh camp that were totally destroyed by the Israelis … this is the … plan to end up the camps because … in 1948 when our homeland was occupied and we were driven out by force but the witnesses [remained]. So now it’s time to end the only witness itself: the camp. But every time it takes a different scenario; sometimes it’s by the Israelis sometimes it’s by other hands, Arab hands.
EI: Like the Lebanese army this time?
LK: This time and before. The Lebanese army faced us in 1973 and sieged our camps and it was obvious at that time that the resistance was still at its peak so they couldn’t [come] near our camps in Beirut. Now it’s time according to the Arab situation which is divided [because] the Palestinian situation [is divided], the PLO is now divided and what happened in Gaza added to the division, so it’s easy to [destroy] another camp. But this time by having the excuse of Fatah al-Islam.
EI: You just returned from your first visit to the refugee camps in northern Lebanon since the summer war. Is there anything you would like to talk about?
LK: This is not the first destruction of one of our camps. We have to be careful … to rebuild this camp and by ourselves. Those who want to support us have to support us directly, not through governments … We are not asking [the Lebanese or other governments] to come and build our camps. We build our camps, our people build [them].
And it’s a real suffering for our people to find their houses like this, burnt and destroyed and so on. We have experience with that. But we are not used to it and we will never be used to it. My message to our people is that we can build more and we are patient enough, but this doesn’t mean that it’s an endless patience.
… This is a crime for all the world that look, because we are Palestinians our camps are destroyed in this savage way. Why [did the Lebanese army] burn the houses just to not let the people go back to their houses and to make it more difficult for them [to return]?
Shatila camp was destroyed too and now it’s rebuilt, and it was built by our people … First responsibility is the PLO and all other factions including us [the PFLP] and … then the Palestinian community, the Arab community and then the international community are also called up to come and extend their help to our people. Because we are really [facing] injustice every day in our lives.