Leila Khaled: An icon for women’s emancipation, Palestinian struggle and international solidarity

March 11, 2024
Mural in Belfast
Image of Leila Khaled on International Wall in the Falls Road neighbourhood, West Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Wikimedia (CC BY SA 4.0)

South Africans are deeply disturbed by the character assassination and threats levelled against Leila Khaled, an icon of anti-colonial struggle. Khaled is held in high esteem in the Majority World and was embraced by Nelson Mandela when she first visited South Africa in 2006. Mandela — who was also called a “terrorist” by many leaders in the West — rejoiced in meeting Khaled and spoke for most South Africans when he expressed his admiration for her courage, sacrifices and fortitude. He viewed her as a symbol of the struggle against oppression throughout the world and an inspiration for South Africans fighting against Apartheid.

On her last visit to South Africa, at a conference titled ‘The Dilemmas of Humanity’ in October last year, former Minister (in both the Mandela and Mbeki governments) Ronnie Kasrils, an erstwhile liberation struggle hero of Jewish background shared a platform with Khaled and his words resonated with the massive audience: “I had known her previously and she is as impressive as ever, maintaining a calm and dignified presence, whilst brilliantly recounting her beloved Palestinian background, the dispossession of her family and people, her experiences and motivation for lifelong involvement in the resistance struggle. I was struck then, as I had been on previous occasions when we had met, by her quiet modesty, dignity and irrepressible courage and resolve…

“The years have witnessed her remaining true to her movement and people, as a prominent leader in the Palestinian women’s movement, in which she has played such a decisive part, and in a range of social and humanitarian activities. She has been a prominent speaker internationally, an editor and journalist for the Palestinian media, an organiser of health service to her wounded and injured people and an educator and carer of schoolchildren. Such a multiplicity of roles is testament to her extraordinary talents and consistent service to people of all generations over the years. She is an example of an ordinary young Palestinian girl who became an extraordinary heroine for all ages.

“Whilst Israel, and its supporters in countries of North America and Europe, have attempted to portray her as an unrepentant terrorist, millions elsewhere hailed her as the noble freedom fighter she is. For us it is clear that the state violence of the oppressor cannot be equated with the resistance of the oppressed. Where we, along with the likes of Leila, had to resort to violence the objective has been to create a society based on peace, justice and a humanitarian morality. This is why South Africans and the diverse solidarity movement in the country, is so clear in our support for the Palestinian cause, and why Leila is always hailed as a true heroine who continues to inspire us as she does people who value freedom and independence everywhere in the world.”

It is unconscionable that the federal government of Australia’s censorship and gagging of Khaled occurs at a time when even the judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in a near unanimous decision, considered Israel to be plausibly committing a genocide — considered to be the “crime of all crimes” — as defined in Article 1 of the Genocide Convention.

The ICJ’s order comes after all reputable international human rights organisations have already conclusively shown that Israel is in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

In January 2021, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, released a report unambiguously titled A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid.

Three months later, Human Rights Watch, echoed this finding when it issued an exhaustive report, including extensive legal analysis, which concluded damningly that Israeli authorities are committing crimes against humanity, in the form of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people.

A year later, in January 2022, Amnesty International, issued a report titled Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians: A Cruel System of Domination and a Crime against Humanity. The latter report’s key components include territorial fragmentation; segregation and control; dispossession of land and property; the denial of basic economic and social rights and the suppression of Palestinian’s human development.

Having heard Khaled speak on numerous occasions, her views are commensurate with these reputable reports and rulings. She would also likely discuss the ongoing genocide where close to 40,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed or buried under the rubble including 13,500 children — 75% of those killed are children, women and the elderly.

In addition to these grim statistics and the daily increase in the death toll the World Health Organisation estimates that 1 million cases of preventable infectious diseases have been detected and 350,000 patients on chronic medication, 10,000 with cancer and 60,000 pregnant women are at risk. As bombs continue to drop and food aid trucks are blocked, children are exponentially dying of severe malnutrition.

Refusing Khaled a visa and outrageously attempting to prevent her from even speaking virtually, is a futile effort to stop Australians from learning the truth about the genocide. Even more egregious is the complicity of the Australian government in supporting the apartheid, settler colonial and genocidal state of Israel and thus abetting another genocide of Indigenous people. Contrast these efforts with the Australian government’s empathy with the Ukrainian people and its hypocritical views about respect for freedom, tolerance of diverse views and solidarity with human suffering.

Leila Khaled is a treble icon: for women’s emancipation; for the Palestinian struggle for human dignity, self-determination and basic rights and for international solidarity. She is a champion and an inspiration of all three. She has inherited the sumud for which the Palestinian people are so famous. In fact, this has become synonymous with her name.

She represents that determination and drive for freedom, which Israel, and no amount of treachery from other quarters, will ever be able to suppress. Just as she inspired her own generation of freedom fighters, and the generation of the intifada of today, her name will continue to inspire those of the next generation until victory for her people is achieved. We convey the best wishes and health to her, and support for the Palestinian struggle, from freedom loving South Africans.

[Salim Vally is a South African human rights activist and Professor and Director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg and will be a feature speaker at the Ecosocialism 2024 conference from June 28‒30 in Boorloo/Perth.]

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