A woman who hijacked two aircraft of behalf of a Palestinian terrorist group a half century ago has been invited to take part in a virtual panel discussion hosted by a San Francisco State University department this month.
As a leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, Leila Khaled would not be able to visit the U.S. in person, but in the era of Zoom webinars that hurdle has fallen away.
SFSU's Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies department is billing its September 23 event "a historic roundtable conversation with Palestinian feminist, militant, and leader Leila Khaled."
During a rash of PFLP hijackings 50 years ago, Khaled hijacked two aircraft – one American, one Israeli – putting the lives of hundreds of passengers and crew at risk. After negligible time in custody, she was released both times.
Revered by many on the left as an "icon" of the Palestinian cause, she lives in Jordan, is a member of the PFLP's political bureau and heads its "refugees and right of return department."
Pro-Israel groups are condemning the invitation.
"Hijacking civilian flights for the cause of ending Jewish self-determination is not righteous, it is reprehensible," said Zac Schildcrout, managing editor of CAMERA on Campus, the campus division of the pro-Israel media monitoring group. "It is deeply concerning that an official academic program of San Francisco State University would glorify such actions."
"Leila Khaled is a terrorist who twice hijacked planes full of Jews," said the American Jewish Committee. "There is nothing 'courageous' about inviting her to campus."
SFSU spokesperson Kent Bravo defended the decision.
"An invitation to a public figure to speak to a class should not be construed as an endorsement of point of view," he said by email. "Higher education and the college experience are an opportunity to hear divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences."
"A university is a marketplace of ideas and San Francisco State University supports the rights of all individuals to express their viewpoints and other speech protected by law, even when those viewpoints may be controversial," said Bravo.
"We recognize that the exercise of free speech and academic freedom can result in discomfort or pain for others," he said. "We have systems in place to support our students, including our Division of Diversity and Community Inclusion."
Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, pushed back on Twitter: "SFSU leaders need to exercise their own free speech to state forcefully & unequivocally that glamorizing female terrorists & providing a platform to a terror org that slaughters Rabbis & Jewish teenage girls isn't a 'debatable viewpoint' much less a 'courageous conversation.'"
Marxist PFLP has long history of violence
With a relatively low profile among Palestinian terrorist groups, the Marxist PFLP continues to advocate violence and carry out terror attacks, including a remotely-triggered bomb that killed an Israeli teenager and wounded her brother and father, a rabbi, in the West Bank last summer.
PFLP terrorists armed with axes, knives and guns attacked a Jerusalem synagogue in 2014, leaving five people dead, three of them U.S. citizens.
The U.S. government designated the group as an FTO in 1997, and it's also considered a terrorist organization by Canada, Australia and the European Union.
Despite the latter listing, in 2017 left-wing members of the European Parliament invited Khaled to speak at a side event at the complex in Brussels, where she used her address to compare the "Zionists" to the Nazis and the Gaza Strip to Auschwitz. She also accused Jews of monopolizing the Holocaust, and declared that "there cannot be peace while there is even one Zionist on the Palestinian territory."
The leftist lawmakers received Khaled with standing ovations and clenched fist salutes, even applauding when she recalled the decision to hijack planes.
In August 1969, Khaled and an accomplice seized control of TWA Flight 840 from Rome to Tel Aviv, carrying 95 passengers – including an American diplomat, Thomas Boyatt – and 12 crew.
The Boeing 707 was diverted to Damascus, where the terrorists blew up the nose section on the tarmac. The Syrian government arrested the hijackers but released them without charge two months later. All hostages were released, although the Syrians held onto two Israeli citizens for several months before exchanging them for 71 Syrian and Egyptian soldiers imprisoned in Israel.
Less than a year later, Khaled and a Nicaraguan Sandinista member, armed with hand grenades, hijacked El Al Flight 219, en route from Amsterdam to New York City. The plan was to divert the plane to the Middle East, but an Israeli sky marshal shot her accomplice and she was subdued. The plane made an emergency landing in London, where Khaled was arrested.
The foiled hijacking was part of an ambitious plot that saw the PFLP seize four other aircraft, operated by TWA, BOAC, Swissair, and Pan Am. The first three were diverted to a remote airstrip in Jordan called Dawson's Field, where the terrorists blew them up.
The Pan Am Boeing 747 was too big to land at Dawson's Field and was diverted to Cairo, where it too was blown up.
In total, the five targeted aircraft carried 687 passengers and 60 crew, among them 178 American passengers and 23 crew.
Khaled remained in British custody for three weeks before being released, in exchange for the remaining hostages from the aircraft at Dawson's Field.
British government documents declassified under a 30-year rule in 2001 revealed that Britain overruled U.S. objections to releasing Khaled, who was wanted in the U.S. for the TWA hijacking the previous year.