Nelson Mandela frequently declared that “Palestine was the greatest moral issue of our time”. After we toppled the Apartheid regime in 1994, he went further, saying “We South Africans cannot consider ourselves free until the Palestinian People are free”.
Millions of us in South Africa collectively recoiled from Israel’s gruesome assault on the people of Gaza during those 51 nightmarish days of “Operation Protective Edge” and the attendant ongoing cruelty in the West Bank. As the dust settled, we were left shocked beyond belief as we witnessed a community of 1.8 million in ruins; Khozaa, Shujaiyya, Beit Hanoun, with entire families and neighbourhoods, gone.
According to the United Nations, 2,131 Palestinians were killed during Israel’s offensive. Of those 501 were children, with 70 percent under 12.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza recorded 10,918 people injured including 3,312 children and 2,120 women. According to the United Nations, 244 schools were shelled and one used as a military base by Israeli soldiers. Al Mezan human rights organisation documented at least 10,920 houses damaged or destroyed of which 2,853 were completely flattened. Eight hospitals – resulting in six being taken out of service – 46 NGOs, 50 fishing boats, 161 mosques, and 244 vehicles were also hit.
Eighty percent of Gazan families have no way to feed themselves and are dependent on aid. Farmland in the border areas has been defined as a buffer zone which Israel unilaterally extends by direct gunfire upon farmers. When you deprive a population of the means of life and of movement, when the injured cannot access healthcare, when the exiled are forced time and again back into canvas tents, and when all of this happens under ferocious attack by land, sea and air with the international community looking on whilst quietly arming Israel – what would you call this?
‘Crime of crimes’
For the first time with regards to Israel and its’ actions in Gaza, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which I am proud to be a juror for, has examined the crime of genocide. As Professor John Dugard, another Tribunal Jurist explains: “The crime of genocide is the crime of crimes. Great care should be taken in considering it. Nevertheless Operation Protective Edge was of such gravity that the Russell Tribunal believes it is necessary to consider whether this crime has been committed.”
The characteristics of this crime involve killing, causing serious bodily harm or inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction in whole or in part of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Unlike the crime against humanity it must be inflicted with the intent to destroy the group in whole or in part. What we found from this session of the Tribunal is that we are on the brink of a genocidal apartheid, with incitement to genocide a real and present danger, articulated across many levels of Israeli society, on both social and traditional media, from football fans, police officers, media commentators, religious leaders, legislators, and government ministers.
The people of South Africa, save for a minority of Zionists and their hangers on, are horrified. We have known apartheid. The freedom fighters among us visiting the occupied Palestinian territories have unanimously declared “we are reminded of apartheid but what we see is far worse”. The apartheid system in South Africa required cheap black labour to make the economy function and thus the state kept them alive – if barely. But there were still huge similarities with Israeli apartheid.
As in Israel, the “non-white” people or “non-Europeans” (Apartheid terms) were deprived of equal rights and freedom of movement; had their homes in white towns demolished and were removed to wired-off ghetto settlements; faced check points, undignified searches, constant harassment and strict requirements for work permits. If you failed to produce one and were in a white town, you went straight to jail. Any resistance was met with police repression, imprisonment, torture and sometimes massacres such as the most infamous at Sharpeville in 1960 where 69 peaceful protesters were shot dead. However, no African (black) townships or Bantustan settlements were ever bombed from the sky or attacked by tanks and artillery.
During those bad old days, the people of South Africa learnt the lessons of struggle. Foremost was never to give in to repression but to continue to resist. To submit meant to effectively validate and exonerate the oppressor’s system. To be intimidated or shocked by punitive repression into submission meant giving the opportunity to the oppressor to claim that the oppressed were quite content with their lot. They would then boast that their “blacks” were better off and happier than those in independent Africa.
So we South Africans who went through the struggle understand very well a people’s right to resist tyranny and occupation. Even the right to resist with weapons is recognised in international law. In our apartheid struggle we contemptuously rejected the “terrorist” barbs hurled at us by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher and were inspired by the international community understanding and supporting our just struggle.
With such a legacy we benefited from the international solidarity and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) and understand our moral duty. We cannot tolerate a critique that questions the Palestinian people’s right to resist by whatever means they deem necessary. We reject the attempts to equate the violence of the two sides as though there can be parity with Israel’s state terrorism and Palestinian resistance. We reject the nonsense of the “terrorism” of the Resistance having the sinister motive of “digging tunnels”. They have enough right to do so as we sometimes did during our armed struggle and as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto did in their courageous action in their 1943 uprising against the Nazis. We easily understand that it was precisely those tunnels on the borders of Gaza that halted Israeli land forces from advancing to inflict greater carnage.
Solidarity demonstrations in cities and towns around South Africa (200,000 in Cape Town) have urged our own ANC Government and all governments everywhere to stop playing the game of calling on both sides to cease violence as a precondition to ceasefire and negotiations. We certainly go as far as pressurising government to implement BDS against apartheid Israel, as the ANC requested all governments to do so during our struggle, and not to toothlessly say that this is the task of civil society. It is governments who apply sanctions and ensure they are implemented by the public and private sector.
The findings of the RToP have served to educate and mobilise governments, institutions, civil society and solidarity movements to implement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions tactics and policies. Most significant has been the RToP’s investigation into Israel’s practise of ethnic cleansing and currently of what the Russell Tribunal has articulated as murder, persecution and extermination.
The barbaric onslaught on Gaza July-August 2014 will be a main focus of our campaigning for accountability of not just Israel but third party states. Israel and its accomplices must not be allowed to get away with the extermination of a people. We must prevent the crime of genocide from taking place. What we saw in Gaza 2014 can and will happen again, if the world remains silent. The world must stand by the people of Gaza, of the West Bank, and the Palestinian refugees. This is for the sake of peace and justice for all living in the entire land of Israel/Palestine.
Ronnie Kasrils served in the ANC’s armed wing from its inception in 1961 and was South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Defence (1994-99); Water & Forestry Minister (1999-2004); and Minister for Intelligence Services (2004-2008). He has retired from government but is active in Palestine Solidarity Committees.