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The Hijackers' Perspective

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Leila Khaled with machine gun The Palestinian militants who hijacked the planes on September 6, 1970, were certainly willing to die for their cause. The question was: were they willing to kill for it?

Ready to Fight
Like Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine founder George Habash, Leila Khaled and her family had been forced to flee their home in their aftermath of the 1948 war. Like Habash, she grew up embittered by what she saw as Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Khaled became convinced "mentally and morally that there is no other choice for [Palestinians] except to fight," and she was willing to do whatever P.F.L.P. leaders suggested. She studied how airplanes operated and then participated in the 1969 hijacking of a TWA flight to Tel Aviv, easily evading the minimal airport security. Waiting to board the flight, Khaled saw a young girl with a t-shirt saying "Be Friends." We Palestinians would like to be friends with everybody, Khaled thought to herself, "but we were obliged to do [the hijacking] to show that we were forgotten as a people."

Guns and Hand Grenades
One year later, with plastic surgery performed to conceal her features, Khaled was confident she could again commandeer an airplane. After all, she reasoned, "who could resist ... people armed with guns and hand grenades." Khaled and her comrade Patrick Arguello, who were both using fake Honduran passports, were stopped and their luggage searched, but no one thought to examine their persons. Khaled had two grenades on her, and some 20 minutes into El Al Flight 219, she stood up and removed the pins with her teeth, then rushed through first class and demanded that the captain open the cockpit door. "I will count," she said, "and if you don't open I will blow up the plane." Khaled later claimed that she would not have made good on this threat; the grenades were only for self-defense. But Arguello had no such inhibitions; when the pilot threw the plane into a dive, Arguello shot steward Shlomo Vider repeatedly, nearly killing him. Arguello was himself then mortally wounded by an armed guard.

Getting the World's Attention
On the other targeted flights, the P.F.L.P. met no resistance, but that did not mean they knew no fear. The Jordanian "airport" to which the planes were directed was just a strip of hard ground; there was no guarantee the planes would be able to land safely. In the words of P.F.L.P. member Abu Samir, "We were afraid. Could you imagine how the passengers felt?" On the ground, P.F.L.P. spokesman Bassam Abu-Sharif discovered how difficult it might be to bring the Palestinian struggle to the world's attention. One American he questioned thought the plane had landed in Africa. "No," Sharif said, "You are in Jordan, and we are Palestinian guerrillas." They were in Pakistan? Palestine, Sharif corrected, explaining the political situation. But the American hostage knew nothing about it. Another hostage tried to give a stack of dollar bills to her captors. "Put it back in your purse," Sharif replied. "We are not thieves. This is not a robbery."

Violence With Limits?
Throughout their time in the desert, Sharif tried to get the hostages to relax. "Don't worry," he told them at one point, "it's only a hijack. Nobody will be hurt." Sharif said this while his colleagues were setting explosives on the plane, and the incident illustrated a central irony of the situation. The hijackers viewed themselves as fighters in a just war, with these skyjackings their only way to get the world's attention. The militants by and large treated the hostages well, making sure they had food and water. They allowed select groups of passengers to speak with the media and permitted one man to get vital medicine for his daughter from the airplane luggage. And yet at the same time, the P.F.L.P. was telling the world that these hostages would suffer the consequences if imprisoned Palestinian militants were not freed. Sharif acknowledged this duality at a press conference, admitting that hijacking was an inherently violent act, but he stressed that his people did not want to hurt any of the passengers, only use them to obtain the release of captured comrades. And in the end, the P.F.L.P. threats turned out to be only that; although the hijackers could have killed the hostages, every one of them was eventually released. Khaled would pointedly note that on her flight, only the hijacker died. But even though in general these particular militants were not willing to kill hostages for their cause, a precedent had been set, with goals sought not through negotiation but armed hijacks. In the years to come, future militants would have considerably fewer qualms about ending innocent life.

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Hijacked American Experience