After Hamas killed around 1,400 Israelis and took hundreds more hostage on Oct. 7, Israel swiftly formed an emergency unity government in response. Five opposition lawmakers joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet to make expedited wartime decisions as the country has called up 360,000 reservists to prepare for a potential ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.
These acts of political coordination should not be confused with an absence of dissatisfaction and dissent within Israel. Polling indicates that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis blame Netanyahu and his government for allowing Israel to become vulnerable to the biggest assault on the Jewish state in half a century. Israeli journalists and commentators have hammered Netanyahu’s handling of Hamas and Israeli security. And some left-wing activists and lawmakers have condemned the indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Gaza as an indefensible human rights violation and a counterproductive approach to ending the crisis.
I called up one of those lawmakers, Ofer Cassif, to discuss his analysis of the situation. A democratic socialist, he is currently the only Jewish member of the Hadash-T’aal coalition in the Knesset (the others are Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel). Cassif earned a doctorate in political philosophy from the London School of Economics, and occupies a fascinating position in Israel’s political system. As much of Israel’s political class rallies in favor of a potentially decade-long war in Gaza, Cassif represents a perspective on the origins and nature of the crisis that doesn’t get a lot of attention in mainstream Western coverage. He told me that he believes the guilt for the massacres belongs only to Hamas, but that current and former Israeli governments bear “responsibility for the context that could have led to them.” The Knesset Ethics Committee recently suspended Cassif from the Knesset for 45 days and docked his salary for 14 days for likening Israel’s government policy toward Palestinians to the Holocaust.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Zeeshan Aleem: What’s your ethical and political appraisal of Hamas’ attacks and Israel’s response?
Ofer Cassif: I’ve been talking for decades against the Israeli occupation, and I’ve been warning that, on top of being evil in itself, it’s going to lead to carnage on both sides. What we’ve seen is an unspeakable massacre by Hamas against innocent civilians in Israel, some of which were my colleagues at a college that I used to teach at. And a very good friend of mine was killed with her husband in her house; just a short time before she was killed, she sent me a WhatsApp message indicating the Hamas terrorists were surrounding her house, and she was terribly afraid. Perhaps those were the last words of her life. So on top of my political and ethical views, it is very personal to me. As far as I know, at least 10 people who I knew were killed by Hamas. I refer to this as a vicious, monstrous, satanic carnage of innocent civilians in the south of Israel. There’s no excuse for such vicious, satanic carnage. I’m against the occupation, the occupation is an ongoing war crime. But nothing can justify such a vicious massacre, nothing at all.
It is an appalling double standard of the world, and particularly of the United States, when they justly condemned the slaughter of the Israelis but help Israel to slaughter the Palestinians.
At the same time, I’m against the massacre that Israel carries out now. And I insist on calling it a massacre. Why? Because most of the Hamas terrorists and most of the high-ranked leaders of Hamas are relatively protected. They have their own bunkers, obviously, with the materials and resources they need. Those who are killed and starved by Israel are mostly innocent civilians.
The Palestinians, 2.3 million innocent civilians mostly who live in the Gaza Strip, are actually victims of three different factors: the vicious dictatorship of Hamas; the vicious assault of Israel, who imposed for more than 15 years a vicious blockade and siege on Gaza; and they are also victims of the international community and primarily of the United States, who allows this situation to persist.
It is an appalling double standard of the world, and particularly of the United States, when they justly condemned the slaughter of the Israelis but help Israel to slaughter the Palestinians. This is unacceptable. And this terrible double standard could have been prevented had the international community forced Israel to end the occupation ages ago — for the sake of the Palestinians and for the sake of the Israelis, because the Israelis are also victims of the occupation.
Netanyahu formed an emergency wartime government with opposition lawmakers, including Benjamin Gantz, typically described as a centrist. What are the implications of this for Israel’s war footing and its policy going forward?
Cassif: There are two implications, both of them very dangerous, for both Palestinians and Israelis. First, as the defense minister in the former government, Benjamin Gantz was not “mild” or “moderate” on the Palestinians. It was he who, with no evidence, declared six Palestinian human rights groups as terror organizations, thereby outlawing them completely in the West Bank. So I’m afraid that Gantz joined the government not as a moderate element that may block some crazy endeavors by the Netanyahu government, but to legitimize the deeds of the government.
Another issue that concerns me is that by Gantz joining this no-less-than-fascist government, which comprises explicit racists like Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who believe in racial superiority (this is not interpretation of mine, they said that very explicitly, especially Smotrich), he legitimizes the racism of the government.
You have in the past discussed Smotrich’s “subjugation plan,” which openly calls for an end to a two-state solution. Could you explain what that plan is and your concerns about it?
Cassif: Yes, the subjugation plan was published by Smotrich in 2017. It boils down to three points. First, annexation of the West Bank without granting basic rights to the Palestinians, primarily democratic — right to vote and be elected —as well as freedom of movement, expression and other things. Second, those Palestinians who are not going to accept their lot as second-class citizens — actually not citizens, subjects — are going to be expelled. And third, those who are going to resist are going to be killed.
I think that Israel was interested in a confrontation. I want to emphasize that I do not mean one bit that the government was interested in the carnage that Hamas carried out in the south. I mean that they were interested in a “mild confrontation” or lower level of violence, in order to justify, legitimize and use that war as an excuse to carry out the subjugation plan of Smotrich’s.
That’s very clear for three reasons. After Hamas’ attacks, Smotrich wrote on social media, “Now is the time for subjugation.” That actually rests my case. Second, Netanyahu said at a Likud convention in 2019 that supporting Hamas is a useful strategy for dividing Palestinians and blocking efforts to establish a Palestinian state. That’s the reason that he actually assisted Hamas, he gave permission for a lot of money to pass to Hamas throughout the years, and he continuously weakened the Palestinian Authority. Why? Because by helping Hamas as a terrorist, vicious, extreme organization, he could legitimize attacks on the Palestinians in front of the international community. And by that, prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. And third, Smotrich said the same in 2015 when he said, ”The Palestinian Authority is a burden, Hamas is an asset.”
I support a cease-fire and an immediate exchange of prisoners and hostages. I’m not a pacifist, and when defense is needed, I will support it. But in the current situation, I don’t think that’s the point.
This is also leading to growing violence in the West Bank. On Oct. 11, settlers invaded the Palestinian village of Qusra with no hindrances, killed three innocent Palestinians and went out freely with no obstacle. And the settlers came to the funerals and killed another two Palestinians, with no military and police to stop them. And as far as I know, no one was arrested. The blood of the Palestinians is everywhere in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That’s not new. For months there have been pogroms by settlers against Palestinians — they torch their fields, they cut their trees, invade their villages.
If you were leading the government, what would your response to the Hamas attacks be?
Cassif: I see Hamas as a brutal, vicious organization, a deadly one, which first and foremost causes a lot of damage to the Palestinians in general and the Palestinians in Gaza strip in particular. But it is also — alas, I lament it — it’s a huge political organization that cannot be ignored. The most important thing is to distinguish between the ideological hard core of Hamas, which is not that big, and the masses that may follow or support them. The hard core should be isolated and should be weakened politically, in order to trigger its collapse.
How do we isolate the hard core? Once the Palestinians have hope that their liberation is just around the corner, that they are going to be liberated and live in their own sovereign Palestinian state — in all the territories that Israel occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem — the Palestinians have the incentive not to follow the bigots, but to follow the moderates. That’s what happened after Oslo. (Let’s leave aside for now what we think about Oslo; I think that the accords were very problematic.) Hamas began to be very strong during the first intifada, but once the Oslo Accords were accepted, there was a feeling among Palestinian people that a just solution was around the corner. And that was Hamas’ worst point, they hardly had any support. They lost their popular support because people had hope. Once the hope was lost, Hamas got more and more support and followers.
If Israel wants to isolate the fanatics, they must create a situation in which the masses of the Palestinian people understand that liberation is coming, that the occupation is going to be over soon. That, of course, necessitates full declaration and activities by the Israeli side to end the occupation. I do not delude myself, the ideological hard core of Hamas is going to cling to its deadly means, but they are going to be isolated. As long as the hardcore pursues violent terrorist attacks, there will be a need to defend against them. But the masses will not support them if freedom is about to arrive.
That means to do the total opposite of what Netanyahu and his government have been doing. For many years, they have explicitly said and done so: strengthened Hamas and weakened the Palestinian Authority to prevent a political peaceful solution and liberation of the Palestinians.
What is your position on Israel’s military response to Hamas’ attacks?
I support a cease-fire and an immediate exchange of prisoners and hostages. I’m not a pacifist, and when defense is needed, I will support it. But in the current situation, I don’t think that’s the point. First, the victims of this military assault by Israel are primarily innocent civilians — that’s a war crime. That’s something that I will never accept, just like I will never accept any attack on Israeli civilians. Secondly, it won’t bring any security to Israel and Israelis. The generals know that, the politicians know that, Netanyahu knows that, but they don’t care.
Everybody in Israel knows that there was a terrible security fiasco in the South. Normally there were military units on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Many of them were moved by Netanyahu to the West Bank, because it was more important for him and his fanatic government to defend the illegal settlements in the West Bank than the civilians in the south. [Editor’s note: The Israeli army claims that extra units in the West Bank had been pulled from training courses, not Gaza.] On top of that, an Egyptian intelligence official said last week that he informed Netanyahu a few times that Hamas is planning “something big” and that Israel should be aware of it — and Netanyahu preferred to ignore that. [Editor’s note: Netanyahu has denied this claim.] And it was published in an Israeli newspaper that some Israeli intelligence soldiers who stood by the border between Israel and Gaza also informed their commanders that they saw strange conduct in the Gaza Strip. They, too, were ignored. Netanyahu was much more dedicated to the well-being of the illegal settlements than to the exposed, neglected citizens of the south. So it’s not only that they want to avenge the blood of the innocent civilians that were butchered by Hamas, they also want to divert the attention of the Israeli public.
There has been a debate among critics of Israeli occupation and apartheid across the world over how to respond to Hamas’ actions. If you were to address that international community, what do you think is the best way for them to think through this issue?
Cassif: First, we have to refer to the carnage that occurred in the south. They cannot ignore it, we shouldn’t ignore it, not only politically, but also ideologically and morally. So I would say to the international community: “Unite in opposition to this carnage. Nothing can justify it, neither the occupation nor Israeli apartheid.” That’s something we should start with, because people, especially the right wing in Israel, want to manipulate the opposition to the occupation and the opposition to the assault on Gaza. They want to present the opposition as if it was antisemitic. It is not necessarily antisemitic. Unfortunately, there are some antisemites that are cynical and oppose occupation, not for the well-being of the Palestinians, but for the bad being of the Jews. Of course, I have nothing to do with them; antisemitism is a crime, like any other kind of racism.
On top of that, the international community should say that in order to prevent bloodshed on both sides, we must oppose Israeli apartheid, ethnic cleansing and occupation. There is no other way. We must be sensitive to each and every civilian, to each and every person, no matter what one’s identity is. That’s a moral perception and a practical one as well.
Joe Biden is signaling unconditional support for Israel and providing it with military support, while also gently cautioning it to not be consumed by rage and to consider Gaza’s humanitarian needs. What do you think he should be doing?
If Biden is really interested in the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians, as I am, the only thing he should do is stand for peace. He has the ability to do so, but for whatever reason he refrains from doing so. He has the power to force the leaders of the region to reach a just peace solution — I emphasize just — and that means a total end of the occupation, a Palestinian state besides Israel in all the territories Israel has occupied since 1967, and peace and security and prosperity for everyone. That’s the thing Biden should do, not sending more arms and more battleships. That’s just going to lead to more bloodshed and more suffering on both sides.