Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

Free Mandela

From the Prison of Fantasy)!

Monday July 2005 was Nelson Mandela’s 87th birthday.
And on these shores, I sometimes feel Mandela is in need of rescuing, trapped in some pretty bizarre narratives that have nothing to do with his own story or politics.
Full disclosure: I freely admit that Nelson Mandela is the only politician for whom I’ve ever voted; that I celebrate him as a moral giant of our age, and that I proclaimed him my leader (usually at the top of my tuneless voice, in badly sung Xhosa songs) during my decade in the liberation movement in South Africa.
Tony posted on July 20, 2005

That maybe why the “Mandela” I’ve encountered in so much American mythology is so unrecognizable.

Herewith, the 3 most egregious versions:

Mythical Mandela #1:

“Like Gandhi, Martlin Luther King and Nelson Mandela…”

How many times haven’t you heard that phrase to describe some politician, somewhere, opting for pacificism in the face of a nasty regime. Don’t take it from me, try a google search on that exact phrase.

I understand the compulsion to link figures of great moral authority, but this is a little misleading.

Nelson Mandela was never a pacifist.

When the Gandhi route of non-violent civil disobedience brought only violence from the state, Mandela declared

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices – submit or fight.That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom”


He played a leading role in setting up the ANC’s guerrilla wing, and traveled abroad to gather support, even undergoing guerrilla training himself in Algeria, from the commanders of the FLN who had recently ejected the French colonials.

Mandela was no terrorist, however: Under his leadership, the movement’s armed wing targeted symbols and structures of minority rule, and combatants of its security forces; never white civilians or any other non-combatants.

And most importantly, he saw it as always, immediately and ultimately, subordinated to the political leadership.

In these beliefs he remained consistent and proud. Even as the mass non-violent opposition reasserted itself, under ANC guidance, in the 1980s, he reiterated its connection with the armed wing, writing in a smuggled message from prison that

“between the hammer of armed struggle and the anvil of united mass action, the enemy will be crushed.”

(It didn’t ever work that way– the armed struggle was never particularly effective, and mass action combined with international sanctions did more to topple the regime.)

Mandela, like the rest of the movement’s leadership, never hesitated to take the opportunity to find a political solution for the greatest benefit of all South Africans — but that was the same spirit with which he’d embarked on his armed struggle, telling the court,

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela and his organization suspended the armed struggle only once the apartheid regime conceded to democracy.

He was no pacifist. On the contrary, he never hesitated to pick up arms when he perceived his people were confronted with the choice between submission to tyranny and armed resistance.

Nor was he a militarist: He never hesitated to take the political path when that presented itself. And in that example, he has much to teach the world.

Myth #2: The “Mandela Miracle”

Google Mandela and Miracle together, and there are at least 86,000 citations.

This idea has entered American shorthand as follows: South Africa would have exploded in a racial war, and white people would have been driven into the sea, had it not been for the “miraculous” generosity of spirit of Nelson Mandela, who supposedly restrained the vengeful hordes.

The assumption that black people would seek violent revenge for the violence they had suffered at the hands of white people is pretty racist. (Remember Gandhi’s arch put-down when asked by a journalist what he thought of Western civilization: “That would be a fine idea,” or words to that effect.)

But let’s not even go there. This myth ignores the political culture of the ANC, of which Mandela helped form, and which also formed him, and was never dependent on his own, or any other individual’s strength of character.

The basic political architecture of the process of reconciliation always inscribed the internal politics of the ANC, which was always a non-racial movement that had substantial white membership, and whose policies distinguished between white minority rule and white people.

It would be remiss of any historian to understate the role of the South African Communist Party in nurturing this culture. I’ve written some pretty nasty things about the SACP in the past, but nobody can deny that not only were they the first, and for a long time the only organization in South Africa advocating black majority rule. Inside the ANC the communists played the leading role in shaping the analysis and strategy based on non-racialism and drawing whites into the struggle against colonial-style minority rule.

When some angry youths who had left to join the guerrilla forces wanted to respond to the regime’s rampant bloodletting in the townships in the 1980s by targeting white civilians with terror strikes, it was the communists — led by Chris Hani, the commander of the ANC’s military wing and later leader of the SACP, who walked the ANC back from the brink.

And, paradoxical as it may sound, it was the Leninist realpolitik of the ANC’s communist intellectuals that led the movement to embrace the path of a negotiated, compromise solution with negligible “rejectionist” backlash.

Viviane Ghoussoub's photo.

Of course communist discourse had a downside: I remember cringing when freed Robben Island prisoners would tell me things like “In Moscow, comrade, when you come out of the subway, there’s just piles of fruit there, really good fruit, and it’s just there for anyone to take, free, for everyone…” And I nearly fell off my chair when reading a statement Mandela released to the media in Cape Town from prison late in 1989 proclaiming German reunification such a spectacularly bad idea that if released from prison, he would personally fly to Germany to try and stop it.

Uh, let’s just say he was a product of a different age, shall we?

But the broader point here is that it was not some epiphany on the part of Nelson Mandela that led South Africa to its inspiring outcome. There were no angry hordes baying for revenge. Everyone understood what freedom meant, and it had nothing to do with revenge. To imagine otherwise is to insult the millions of ordinary South Africans who struggled and sacrificed to free Mandela, and bring him to power.

Myth #3

Marcus, Malcolm, Mandela and Me — It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand


Action Man

When I first saw that on a T-shirt being sold in Chinatown in 1991, I laughed out loud. (And actually, when watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie at ANC fundraising premiere in Cape Town, I’ll never forget how the audience of Mandela loyalists erupted in raucous laughter when their good-natured leader appeared in the final “Spartacus” scene, intoning “I am Malcolm X.”

(The implication that their leader was inspired by a figure entirely unknown in South African liberation movement discourse was pretty funny.)

Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995, and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics.

My own favorite encounter with the Marcus-Malcolm-Mandela myth came one night in 1997, at a media party where I was chatting with a well known hip-hop scribe and his girlfriend, who ended up giving me a ride home in their rented limo.

I should have known trouble was coming when girlfriend said to me “So, what was it like coming to America and meeting FREE black people?” I told her that I had worked in the struggle, and although the black people I met there were viciously oppressed by a colonial regime, their minds were always free.

But the scribe and his girlfriend simply could not accept that I, a white boy — a Jew, to boot — had been in the ANC. “Mandela didn’t work with white people,” he insisted.

Uh, actually, of the 8 men on trial with Mandela in 1964, 3 were white (all of them Jewish, actually).

By the time the regime fell, there were thousands of whites in the broad liberation movement led by the ANC. A minority of the white community, to be sure, but a consistent presence in the ANC.

Neil Aggett was killed in security police detention, just like Steve Biko. David Webster was murdered by a police assassin, just like Matthew Goniwe.

Of course the vast majority of the people waging the struggle and bearing its sacrifices were black. But there were always a handful of whites alongside them. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression.

Finally, the limo driver turned around, exasperated. He was Palestinian and from Ramallah, where he’d been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO. “And we always had Israeli Jews in our organization,” he said. “Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews.

And so it went on. The South African Jew and the Palestinian leftist trying, in vain, to explain Mandela’s basic non-racialism to the hip-hop philosopher who preferred the Mandela of his own fantasies. Only in New York.

“Heading to Haifa: Want to see my home up close”: Who is Leila Khaled?

No, nothing is written for Leila, nothing is Maktoub for Laila: She will not die a refugee!

It is August 29, 1969.  Leila Khaled and her Palestinian comrade Salim Issawi, another refugee from Haifa, hijacked TWA 840 plane from Rome airport to Tel-Aviv as destination.  The purpose was to take Yitzhak Rabin prisoner and be tried in front of a Palestinian tribunal for crimes against humanity.  Rabin (Ambassador in the USA then) had missed the plane.

Leila and Salim are carrying hand grenades. The Captain and pilot tried several times to redirect the plane to Tripoli (Libya) where the US has a military base. Leila was trained to reading the gauges (the plane has enough autonomy for more than 5-hour flight), and she would correct the flight course.

Leila order the plane to El-Ladd airport.  The smart-ass pilot corrects Leila: “You mean Lod airport in Israel?” “No, it is al Ladd, a name known for millinea, and it is not this stupid Zionist State won’t change it”

Leila orders the pilot to descend at 12,000 feet.  The Israeli air traffic controller is summoned not to mention TWA 840 but call it PFLP, and he finally agreed to obey after the Captain warns him that there are 140 passengers on board.

The controller refuses the landing of the plane and two Israeli Mirage planes are accompanying the civilian plane to prevent it from descending below 12,000 feet.  Leila orders to resume the descent and the Mirage jets made room.

Without warning, Leila orders the pilot to head north to the city of Haifa: “I want to see my home from up close” said Leila.

The plane circled the city twice and was ordered to head to Damascus, where it landed softly. After the passengers exited safely, Leila blew up the cockpit of the plane, and surrendered to the Syrian police.

Three passengers were Israelis and were exchanged for 71 Syrian and Egyptian prisoners three months later.

Life was pleasant in Haifa before April 9, 1948, the 4th birthday of Leila Khaled.

Leila lived in a house on Stanton Street, by the Jewish quarter of Hadar Hacarmel.  On that date of 1949, the Palestinian family of Leila had to vacate the city and seek refuge in Lebanon: Israel has entered the city and 80,000 more Palestinians living in Haifa did the same trip.

The family settled in a camp in Tyre called Bourj al Chemali, where 7,000 Palestinians refugees from Haifa crowded it.  Since that date, Leila would refuse to celebrate her birthday, a day of mourning for her, the nakba for her family.

In 1958, Leila and her sister Nawal are sent to a boarding school in Saida, run by Evangelists, though a Moslem teacher made her memorize verses of the Coran, as Leila was learning to read.

In 1963, at the age of 19, Leila is attending the American University of Beirut (AUB):  Her brother Mohammad, working in Kuwait, paid her tuition.  Her father preferred to pay the tuition of her brother who failed his high school public exam.  Leila could not finish her university degree for lack of financial support and ended up in Kuwait in 1966.

Leila joins the Palestinian Resistance Movement, the main faction of Fateh.

Yasser Arafat is still not ready to train women for military exercises, and Leila tells him that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), headed by Georges Habash, trained both genders and sent them in active duties. She said: “We’ll meet again“, and went ahead and joined the PFLP.

It is September 6, 1970.  Leila does it again and hijacked the Israel El Al plane at the airport of Schiphol (Holland).  Her comrade is Patrick Arguello, originally from Guatemalla and run by dictator Somoza at the time. Patrick had no idea who was his companion boarding as his wife Maria Sanchez.

The attempt failed. Patrick is shot dead and Leila is interrogated by the British police. Leila endures 3 hours of interrogation and kept repeating: “I am the leader of the hijack.  My name is Leila Khaled and a member of the PFLP and from the unit of Rasmieh Odeh, a Palestinian woman prisoner“.

She declare that she want to be considered a prisoner of war.  Scotland Yard officer said: “England is not at war with the Palestinians”. And Leila replies: “Yes, England is at war with us since the declaration of the Balfour document in 1917, promising a homeland for the Jews, in return of a handful of silver coins to prosecute the war against Germany.  England carried out this promise, and is directly responsible for the displacement of million of Palestinians, robbing us from a State and inflicting humiliation, miseries, and indignity on us for decades.” (I developed a bit on that answer).

Four hours later, the officer returns and said: “Three more planes have been successfully hijacked and landed in the Zarka in Jordan.  They want your liberation in return of the passengers.”

In April 1996, Leila is crossing the Allenby Bridge to the West Bank.

A “peace” deal was struck between Rabin and Arafat in Oslo.  The Israeli soldier is interrogating Leila before crossing the border. Leila tells him: “Yes, I belong to a Palestinian organization, I do not agree with this peace deal, and yes I want peace with the Jews. My profession was hijacking Israeli planes. No, I don’t want this peace where I cannot return home without an Israeli soldier interrogating me. Remember young man: I am Leila Khaled.”

“We are refugees, we’ll die refugees” would frequently repeat Leila’s father.  No, nothing is written for Leila: She will not die a refugee. Leila is currently living In Amman (Jordan) by the Jordanian intelligence agency and is married with two kids. She is a member of the Palestinian National Council, and of the Palestinian Women General Union.

Note 1: Article inspired by a chapter of the French book “12 women of the Orient who changed History” by Gilbert Sinoue.

Note 2:  Leila Khaled published her autobiography “My people shall live” in 1973.

Note 3:  After the successive triple hijacking to Zarkat, the Jordanian Monarch Hussein chased out the Palestinian factions into Lebanon, and Lebanon witnessed three decades of bloodshed and calamities.


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