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UK Confidential Monday, 1 January, 2001, 00:20 GMT
Transcripts: The guerrilla's story
Leila Khaled
Palestinian guerrilla Leila Khaled became a household name in 1970 as she was held in the UK during the international hijacking crisis, known now as Black September.

Khaled had led an attempted hijacking of an El Al flight from Amsterdam but was overpowered and arrested on arrival in the UK. Her colleague died in the struggle.

Documents disclosed under the UK's 30-Year Rule reveal that the government decided to negotiate with the Palestinian guerrillas and release Khaled in exchange for hostages.

BBC Television's UK Confidential special documentary spoke to Khaled about the dramatic events.


What was the purpose of the 1970 hijackings?

We wanted to put the Palestinian question in front of international opinion.

All the time we were being dealt with as refugees who only needed human aid. That was unjust.


I felt very strongly that I had to do anything for my people, even change my features through plastic surgery

Leila Khaled
Nobody had heard our screams and suffering. All we got from the world was more tents and old clothes.

After 1967, we were obliged to explain to the world that the Palestinians had a cause.

We wanted to go back to our homeland. We also wanted to release our prisoners from Israeli jails.

We aimed to do all these things through these actions.

So what happened during the hijacking?

There were three planes to be hijacked, a Swissair, because of our comrades in a Swiss jail and another two in Munich in Germany. As for El Al it's because we wanted to release our prisoners from the Israeli jails.

My comrade was Nicaraguan, his name Patrick Obelo. I had two hand grenades and my comrade had a pistol.

Black September
6 Sept: PFLP hijack four airliners, one destroyed, one fails
7 Sept: Fifth hijack. 72-hour ultimatum issued
12 Sept: 255 hostages released, 56 held. PFLP destroy three jets at Dawsons Field
17 Sept: Fighting between Palestinians and Jordanian forces
19 Sept: King Hussein appeals to UK and US
27 Sept: Palestinian-Jordan truce
30 Sept: Leila Khaled released
We knew beforehand that on the plane there were armed security men - but we didn't know that the crew were armed too.

After half an hour, we stood up. I opened the pins of the two hand grenades and Patrick took the pistol.

We stood up, shouted and asked the people to be calm.

Shooting began from the plane's guards. I rushed to the cockpit and left Patrick.

When I reached the cockpit, somebody looked through the magic eye (at me) and I told him that I had two hand grenades.

But they did not open the door.

Then at that moment somebody hit me on my head and caught my hand. I thought that the plane exploded.

But I opened my eyes and saw people just kicking and beating me.

I saw Patrick, and he was breathing heavily with blood coming out of his body. Then somebody came with a pistol. I thought that it was my time so I closed my eyes.

But I opened my eyes again to see somebody else crashing a bottle of whisky over Patrick's head.

After the plane landed, I heard somebody speaking English. A British man took me - of course he was from the police - and he threw me, directly in to the ambulance.

Patrick was there and he had a mask on his face.

After a few minutes, the woman who was in the ambulance took the mask off and she said that he had passed away.

I was furious, shouting and crying.

How did you feel when it all went wrong?

I had not been scared before the hijacking.

I was happy that I had been given such a mission and expected that my comrades in Israeli jails would be released.

Following my capture, it was very hard for me. For about five, six days I couldn't eat. I was in grief because of my comrade being killed.

You were known to security forces - how did you get on the plane?

I was a well-known person after the first hijacking in 1969.

I needed to have plastic surgery to get on to the El-Al plane. So I had a number of slight changes made to my face and I managed to penetrate the security measures of the Israelis.

I felt very strongly that I had to do anything for my people, even change my features.

So I bore all the pain of the operations over six months.

Once you had been arrested in London, had you expected your comrades to hijack another plane?

I did not expect to be in London because we had aimed to hijack the plane and take it to Dawson's Field in Jordan, which we had called, at that time, Revolution Airport.

What happened was that somebody who was not in PFLP but was angered by my capture went and hijacked a BOAC flight the next day and demanded my release.

Britain was not part of the action. And of course Britain itself was not happy about it because it was now involved in things which it had not expected.

Once Britain was drawn in, was there a decision to show your displeasure with British policy in the Middle East?

The only message was to release me but at the same time to speak about the policies of Britain.

The PFLP blew up the planes to show it was serious.

But at the same time, the airport was surrounded by Jordanian tanks and we didn't have any other option but to blow up the planes to show how serious we were.

We wanted to demonstrate our position - we weren't going to compromise. We had asked for the release of the prisoners in Switzerland, Germany and in Britain.

We knew beforehand that the governments wouldn't care much about the planes - but they did care much about the people.

When the British began negotiating with the PFLP, was this a triumph for the group?

They could not do anything but accept the demands.

We just wanted the governments to recognise that these people had a legitimate struggle.

I think that the European governments recognised us in a situation when we had power.

It was a good step for us because [it showed] that governments could be negotiated with and that we could impose our demands.

Before then, these governments didn't recognise us because the struggle was in our own region.

So you believed that the mission had been a success?

To an extent, yes. At the beginning of our revolution we had to create publicity for our struggle.

I think that by using these tactics, we succeeded in putting our message in front of the whole world.

So did the willingness of governments to negotiate encourage you further?

The success in the tactics of hijacking and imposing our demands and succeeding in having our demands implemented, gave us the courage and the confidence to go ahead with our struggle.

It made us continue the struggle because it showed us materially that we could achieve our goals by armed struggle.


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Black September

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