South African guerrilla fighter Ronnie Kasrils speaks out on Palestine
Ronnie Kasrils was a founding member of the African National Congress’ (ANC) armed wing in apartheid South Africa. He spoke to Charlie Kimber about Israel’s assault—and why you should back Palestinians’ right to resist
Ronnie Kasrils on an anti-apartheid protest in Trafalgar Square in London
CK: What do you think was the background to the attack by Hamas and other forces on 7 October?
RK: You can only keep the lid on a boiling pot for so long and then it’s going to blow. Hamas gave reasons for its operation. It listed the cruel and provocative attacks at Al Aqsa mosque, and what an affront that was. They pointed to the brutality of the settlers and the Israeli forces in the West Bank.
And the third element was the US imperialist dreams of winning Arab states to “normalisation” with Israel. I think Hamas regarded that normalisation as the death knell for the Palestinians’ cause.
The first phase of the Hamas attack on 7 October—the raid on the numerous posts of the IDF manning and controlling the Gaza security barrier—was brilliant in its military organisation, capacity, ingenuity, and discipline.
The Western media, can’t understand this—because of racism. They can’t admit a bunch of Arabs outwitted all the nice white people.
And the intelligence was superb. They knew down to the actual house and room where top commanders were. I believe that among those they still hold as detainees are high level military people.
That’s what I saluted as a student and one-time practitioner of guerrilla warfare. The killing of civilians, the second phase of what happened on 7 October, is a different matter and can’t be supported.
However there is compelling evidence that the Israeli forces caused at least some of the civilian deaths as part of their “Hannibal directive” to prevent hostage-taking and to kill Hamas operatives.
What happened to the civilians was tragic but as we South Africans know, you can’t oppress people for decades and not expect the pot to boil over. When that happens there’s no guarantee it will do so gently to the satisfaction of the oppressors. It was such a humiliation for Israel.
CK: What about the Israeli assaults?
RK: The response has been utterly genocidal. I think some Palestinians believe there will come a point where America will step in when Israel goes too far.
I heard this argument for decades from the PLO. But what’s so damn dreadful and pathetic is the absolute cynicism and callousness of the Americans. Suddenly it’s a big act of Biden and Blinken saying that in the south of Gaza Israel must not be so harsh as they were in the North. But they don’t hold back Israel.
It’s hard when you are in the resistance to know exactly what is going to happen. Near the end of South African apartheid in 1992 I led a march at Bhisho to demand the reincorporation of the Ciskei “homeland” into South Africa.
We didn’t expect the security forces to fire on us, but they killed 28 people dead. But resistance is often fruitful when viewed in the longer term. You look back and say that although there are terrible losses that in the end we triumphed. There’s no such thing as a risk free strategy.
I was in Gaza about 15 years ago where I met Hamas activists, and then again I met them at a conference in Qatar about four or five years ago. And they wanted to know, how we won in South Africa.
I stressed to them that it was important to have a very clear political position, and then reinforcing that with the armed actions and needing to have a moral high ground.
They knew I come from a Jewish background. Hamas people were very interested by that. I said that it was important for the ANC to have white supporters and members when it was fighting apartheid in South Africa, and that Hamas would gain if it could show that at least some Jews support the resistance. It helps explode the myth of a racist Israeli state that says it represents all Jews.
CK: Are there similarities between the struggle against South African apartheid and Israeli apartheid?
RK: Israel is a settler-colonial state, and so was South Africa before liberation. We called it colonialism of a special type.
It’s not like classic colonialism because the settlers and the colonised people are in the same territory. There’s not a separate colonial state. But there are major differences between South Africa and Israel.
One key difference is the strategic role of Israel, so vital to the West, going back to Winston Churchill, Britain and the 1917 Balfour Declaration. And then the Americans come in and use Israel.
The Zionists were very clever, they understood what the imperialists wanted. As the Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl put it, Israel would be “a sector of the wall of Europe against Asia, we shall serve as the outpost of civilisation against barbarism.”
The development of oil and gas and the strategic importance of the Suez Canal made the position of Israel even more important—far more so than was South Africa. So the imperialists will be even more tenacious in their support.
What the West feared in South Africa was that we had a strong Communist Party, and united labour movement, and the ANC became very radicalised and we had the support from the Soviet Union.
So if apartheid went, it would be a big blow in the competition against Russia. The moment the Soviet Union collapsed, that danger evaporated. The collective West and domestic big business, were prepared to allow political power to pass to the ANC.
The other key difference is that in South Africa, black people were the overwhelming majority and there was a massive and very powerful black working class as well, which isn’t similar in the case of Israel.
In South Africa the apartheid rulers could never think in terms of complete ethnic cleansing and displacement because they needed black labour.
CK: How can the Palestinians win?
RK: I don’t want to prattle on about how a just cause wins in the end. I know far too many just causes that ended in blood and repression.
We can say the US is not so powerful as it once was, but the US and Israel can still create such suffering and impose collective punishment and butchery. But I do see a light at the end of the tunnel.
The first positive is that all the Israeli cruelty has not extinguished the spirit of resistance. You see people in Gaza who are living amid rubble and they are starving, but they are not giving in.
If the resistance can hang on for three months then I think several contradictions can emerge. I think that the Netanyahu government could easily collapse.
It will collapse because of the inner differences, because of everything that’s gone wrong so far and because of this pressure from the families of the hostages. And then we look at the problems that Biden and Sunak are facing and the scale of resistance.
We know the Arab states, this corrupt crowd who would sell the Palestinians down the river and have done so, fear the Arab masses that are boiling. It’s already true that no Arab state can afford to be part of what the US and Israel are doing, and therefore the Abraham Accords “normalisation” has come apart.
The longer the resistance holds in Gaza, the greater the possibility the whole thing can unravel. Then there is the longer term. In South Africa we spoke of four pillars of struggle—mass resistance, international pressure, armed struggle and the underground.
There is a feeling of a global movement of solidarity now. I think it’s broken through like we’ve never seen because of the immorality of the Israelis.
People in South Africa are marching in solidarity with Palestine but they are also watching the rest of the world. The middle classes watch on their own TVs, the poorer people in the shebeen drinking places.
They see Jews protesting in Grand Central station in New York, they see half a million or a million in London—and everyone watches London—and they are amazed and lifted. We know the pressure has to be applied to these bloody Western governments.
Everybody is reading and studying about Palestine. The Palestinian resistance, the Arab masses, pressure on the West and campaigns like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. These give hope.
Ronnie Kasrils is one of the speakers at the Free Palestine organising assembly, Mon 11 Dec, 7pm, Core Clapton, 161 Northwood Road, London E5 8RL
Other speakers include Jeremy Corbyn MP, Ghada Karmi Palestinian author, Lindsey German Stop the War convenor Richard Boyd Barrett MP in the Irish Parliament, Sophia Beach anti-Zionist Jewish activist, Neha Shah Palestine Solidarity Campaign vice chair