Leila Khaled, a convicted plane-hijacker and senior leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was an honored guest of the South African Parliament at this year’s State of the Nation address delivered by President Jacob Zuma.
Her supporters claim that she is a freedom fighter and not a terrorist, and they point to a time when many people condemned Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. This issue has immediate importance for the future of the civilized world, which faces a crisis of violent terrorism across the globe.
Powers of intellectual analysis and moral integrity must be deployed in defining the principal and principled difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.
There is one crisp point which goes to the heart of the matter, and that is that terrorists can be defined as people who willfully target civilians. When the ANC embarked upon the armed struggle, it made it clear all along that its policy was to target security forces and state installations, never innocent civilians. Nelson Mandela and his co-defendants at the infamous Rivonia treason trial were arrested for planning attacks on South African government apartheid installations, not for attempting to murder civilians in shopping malls, places of worship, and their homes.
In his speech from the dock in 1964, Mandela said: “Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality.”
By contrast, Leila Khaled, after having been part of a team that hijacked a Trans World Airlines civilian flight on its way from Rome to Athens, was arrested and convicted of the attempted hijacking of another civilian aircraft a year later. During the latter incident, she charged at the cabin of the plane mid-flight, and was knocked unconscious before she could do anything with the grenades she was holding. She had removed the pins of the grenades.
Khaled also serves as a senior leader of the PFLP, which has proudly claimed responsibility for a number of chillingly cruel murders of innocent, defenseless civilians. Among the most infamous of PFLP operations was the cold-blooded murder of the five members of the Fogel family. The PFLP members entered the Fogel family home in the middle of the night, stabbing to death the parents and three children aged 11, 4, and 3 months in their beds. The three-month-old baby was decapitated. A neighbor who was alerted that something was wrong by one of the surviving children described entering the room: “I entered and saw that another boy survived, two years old. He was lying next to his bleeding parents, shaking them with his hands, and trying to get them to wake up, while crying.”
Leila Khaled’s PFLP also claimed responsibility for the November 2014 Jerusalem synagogue massacre in which four rabbis and a Druse policeman were murdered by PFLP operatives armed with hatchets, meat cleavers, and a rifle, attacking the worshipers as they were praying. The PFLP in an official statement called the perpetrators “heroes” and said: “We bless the operation and the two young men who carried it out.”
This, then, is the core moral distinction which we dare not forget – that terrorism is the willful targeting of innocent civilians. There is no cause on Earth that can justify targeting civilians. International law defines the willful injury or killing of civilians as a war crime.
The PFLP’s philosophy of death places them – and their leaders – squarely in the camp of the worst terrorists, who today wreak mayhem and destruction on decent societies the world over. The killers who entered Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and gunned down 12 journalists in cold blood, and their accomplice who murdered four Jewish shoppers at the local kosher deli, are terrorists, not freedom fighters, even if they intended to defend the honor of their religion.
The Taliban soldiers who entered a school in Peshawar and butchered 132 children are terrorists, not freedom fighters. Likewise, the al-Qaida operatives who flew civilian aircraft into the Twin Towers were terrorists, not freedom fighters.
Islamic State, which has massacred the inhabitants of entire towns and cities across Syria and Iraq, wrought genocide on certain ethnic groups, and routinely behead journalists and humanitarian workers, is an organization of terrorists, not freedom fighters.
This moral distinction is also crucial to understanding the difference between Hamas – which fired thousands of rockets into densely populated areas of Israel with the intention of killing as many civilians as possible, and dispatched operatives to kidnap and murder defenseless schoolchildren – and Israel, which although it was under constant bombardment, undertook unprecedented steps in the history of warfare to avoid civilian casualties.
Words matter. The Talmud notes that God created the world with words. Words create and destroy worlds. Confusion with words reflects moral confusion. To honor a savage terrorist like Leila Khaled as a freedom fighter is a moral outrage. But it is also dangerous. The civilized world faces a terrible threat from violent terrorism.
This threat can be confronted effectively only if we have the moral clarity to define and understand the threat. Africa in particular is under attack from the forces of barbarism.
There is a full-scale continental war taking place in Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Mali, Libya, Somalia, and other places.
Since 2007, Nigeria-based Boko Haram has terrorized communities across western and central Africa, staging bombings and attacks that have killed thousands of civilians.
Also during this time, al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab has carried out nearly 600 terrorist attacks in eastern and northeastern Africa, killing around 2,000 people and wounding thousands more. These include the July 2010 Kampala suicide bombings that ended the lives of 74 soccer fans enjoying the FIFA World Cup Final; the gunmen who in 2013 opened fire at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 shoppers; and the attacks on towns across the Kenyan peninsula that have left hundreds dead.
The African continent is facing a serious threat to peace, stability, and the well-being of its people. Nigeria, in particular, has been subject to an onslaught from Boko Haram, the likes of which should fill our hearts with agony and moral outrage. In early January alone, more than 2,000 Nigerians were murdered by Boko Haram, and hundreds of children have been taken captive in recent months.
Instead of inviting Leila Khaled as a guest of honor, the South African government should have invited the Nigerian mothers whose children are being held captive by Boko Haram, as well the presidents of the suffering African countries, as a sign of African solidarity in the fight against terrorism.
South Africans, who gave the world hope after the defeat of apartheid, should be leading the way in the international community, and at the very least in Africa, in confronting the evils of violent terrorism. To honor Leila Khaled and, by extension, the culture of death and cruelty she represents, makes a mockery of the values of human rights and democracy represented by the South African Parliament.
Moral clarity and the principled distinction between good and evil are the bedrock of human civilization. To honor an unrepentant terrorist is unforgivable. And dangerous.The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.