Fifty years ago, a 25-year-old Palestinian refugee from Jerusalem named Sirhan Sirhan tracked down US presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) and shot him four times at close range in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was just fifteen minutes past midnight on June 5, 1968 when Sirhan Sirhan shot Senator Kennedy, in revenge for the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem that took place exactly one year earlier, during the Six Day War of 1967. Kennedy was running for the presidential election of November 1968 and had previously served as Attorney General of the United States during the years 1961-1964.
That crime shook the very core of American society, coming just five years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, and two months after Martin Luther King was gunned down Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968. Sirhan Sirhan believed that if elected president with the Democrats, RFK would side with Israel against the Palestinians. He was sentenced to death by gas chamber, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after capital punishment was prohibited in the State of California in 1972. On August 27, 2021, a state board parole hearing was held in Sirhan’s favor, recommending his release on the account of remorse and his clean prison record. According to his lawyer, Angela Berry, Sirhan was quite young when he committed his crime and there was an unlikely chance that he would re-offend when/if released from jail.
The board’s decision awaits a final say from California Governor Gavin Newson, who hinted on September 15 that he might not sign off on Sirhan’s release, claiming that Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was one of his heroes. Six of Kennedy’s nine surviving children are opposed to Sirhan’s release, and so is his 96-year old widow Ethel Kennedy. RFK’s children came out with a public letter saying: “As children of Robert F. Kennedy, we are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole.” They added: “We adamantly oppose the parole and release of Sirhan Sirhan and are shocked by a ruling that, we believe, ignores the standards for parole of a confessed, first-degree murderer in the state of California.” Shortly after the parole hearing last month, Kennedy’s youngest daughter Rory wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “The Man Who Murdered by Father Doesn’t Deserve Parole.” She was born after her father’s assassination in 1968.
Three of RFK’s children support Sirhan’s release: Douglas (54), a journalist, Robert Kennedy Jr. (67), a lawyer, and Kathleen (70), an attorney who had served as Lieutenant Governor of Maryland in 1995-2003. So does Paul Schrade, a close friend of the Kennedys who was wounded with RFK at the Ambassador Hotel back in 1968. He is now in his mid-90s and has long supported a theory saying that a second gunman was in the room, who was never identified. Douglas Kennedy told the two-person panel last month: “I’m overwhelmed just by being able to view Mr. Sirhan face to face. I’ve lived my life both in fear of him and his name in one way or another and I am grateful today to see him as a human being worthy of compassion and love.” Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy Jr. famously visited Sirhan in jail back in 2017 and said: “I was curious and disturbed by what I had seen in the evidence. I was disturbed that the wrong person might have been convicted of killing my father. My father was the chief law enforcement officer in this country. I think it would have disturbed him if somebody was put in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.”
Deportation to Jordan
If released, Sirhan Sirhan would have to be immediately deported to Jordan, the country from which he came from back in 1956. When committing the crime in 1968, Sirhan had not qualified for the American Green Card, rendering him ineligible to stay in the United States. The last thing Jordan needs, however, is a convicted criminal on its territory, who would become an immediate magnet for Iran-backed journalists from the anti-American “Axis of Resistance.” Sirhan’s presence would also be welcomed by the large Palestinian community in Jordan, many of whose members are sympathetic to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group that rules Gaza. King Abdullah II would certainly refuse Sirhan’s return to Jordan and so would Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Alternatively, if released, Sirhan could ask to return to his home city, Jerusalem, now controlled by Israel, but authorities in Tel Aviv would never allow it.
If released and returned to the Arab World, Sirhan Sirhan — now 77 — would have a hard time recognizing the cities in which he knew as a teenager. The Palestinian Cause, which was dear to the heart of his generation of Arabs, has now taken a backseat, dwarfed by the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen and by the incompetence of Palestinian leaders since the death of Yasser Arafat back in 2004. It has also been distorted, often beyond recognition, from the secular cause that it once was, after being hijacked, first by the Muslim Brotherhood, then by its terror affiliate, Hamas. Freedom fighters of the 1950s and 1960s were known as Fedayeen, a secular term coined by Arafat’s secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The Fedayeen were “self-sacrificers” who killed themselves for the Arab Cause and were not restricted to Sunni Muslims with a jihadist agenda.
Many were Christians as well and it was insulting to them to be identified by their sect or religion, insisting that they were Arabs. Mosques and religious scriptures were uncommon in the Fedayeen’s literature and iconography. One of those Fedayeen who rose to fame during Sirhan’s teens was Jules Jammal, a Christian navy officer from Syria who detonated himself against a French battleship during the Suez Canal War of 1957. Jammal killed himself for an Arab Cause rather than an Islamic one, and he died on Egyptian territory and not in his native Syria. So was Sanaa Mehedali, a 16-year old Lebanese Christian who blew herself up in front of an Israeli convoy in 1985, killing three Israelis. During the years that preceded RFK’s assassination, three Palestinian Christians had risen to fame throughout the Arab World and seem to have inspired Sirhan Sirhan, those being Wadih Haddad and George Habash, founders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Nayef Hawatmeh, founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP)—all of them, incidentally, close to if not agents of the Soviet Union. These men recruited hundreds of Palestinian Christians into their military groups and one of them might have had a hand in Kennedy’s assassination.
Those who lived to tell the story have since either been killed or sidelined by Hamas, who leaders insist that only affiliates of the Islamic terror group deserve their mention in Palestinian history books. In the school textbooks that it publishes and administers in Gaza, Hamas makes no mention of Christian Palestinians who fought against Israel, insisting that the only real fighters were those working with Hamas’ founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.
That adds yet another player who wants Sirhan Sirhan to remain under lock and key, being Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that he is alive and might return to the region reminds the world that there were Christians like Sirhan in the so-called “resistance” who staged operations against Israel and its enemies long before Hamas was born. Most of the world considers Sirhan Sirhan a criminal, but Hamas seems to envy him for a crime that it would have loved to commit and taken credit for.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.