On October 19, an Israeli Parliament ethics committee suspended Knesset member Ofer Cassif for 45 days after he warned that an “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces is underway. Cassif is an ex-professor in political science and philosophy with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. He has represented the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash-Ta’al) coalition in the Knesset since 2019.
In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Cassif describes how former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon set the stage for deteriorating conditions in Gaza after pushing through the 2004 disengagement plan. He also details the genocidal implications of Jewish supremacist Bezalel Smotrich’s “subjugation plan” and the ways the plan is being implemented in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
brian bean: Can you talk about why, in talking about the events of October 7, you’ve put the main emphasis on the need to end the occupation?
Ofer Cassif: It’s crucially important for me to express my total, unreserved condemnation and disgust at the brutal massacre that Hamas did in the south of Israel. There’s no justification whatsoever for such carnage. Neither the occupation nor anything else. That’s something that I must emphasize.
At the same time, of course, I’m totally against the massacre that Israel is carrying out now. Many people don’t like to hear me say that. As you may have heard, I’ve been suspended for 45 days from the Israeli Parliament on October 19 because I speak not only my mind but the truth.
But as we all know from George Orwell, the more a society clings to lies, the more it hates truth speakers. That’s a criticism of what’s going on in Israel, not me just flattering myself — to be clear. But it is true, according to international law, that what Israel has been doing is a war crime.
Most of the victims — the dead, the wounded, the traumatized — are innocent civilians. The vast majority of Palestinians, like the vast majority of Israelis and all people on the globe, want to live in peace, security and prosperity. That’s why I’m a socialist, because I believe socialism is the best system to deliver those needs.
The context of the occupation, though, is important, not that it justifies one bit the massacre carried out by Hamas. But we have to understand the context in order to prevent such tragedies from happening again. That’s the point. Israel has been conducting a very vicious and lethal occupation for years.
Israel holds millions and millions of Palestinians with no basic rights. They don’t have any basic rights like freedom of movement or freedom of speech, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. If Palestinians resist in any way, they are tried in a military court and subjected to military law, whereas the Israelis who live as settlers in the West Bank are subjected to civil law and courts.
That’s apartheid, and in the last few years, and especially under the current government, the malice of the occupation has grown stronger and deeper. And of course, there is the siege on Gaza for the last 16 years.
Now, in talking about Gaza, first we have to rule out the lie that Israel doesn’t control Gaza anymore because it “left” Gaza almost 20 years ago. That’s a sham. It is true that Israel physically evacuated settlements and military bases from the Gaza Strip, but it never left because it still controls supplies, fuel, electricity, water, the entrance and exit of people, as well as commodities. It controls the sea. Palestinian fishermen are not allowed to go to specific distances and areas…. The people of Gaza’s lives are miserable. Many of them are not allowed to get medical treatment outside Gaza because Israel doesn’t allow them to go either to hospitals in Israel or in the West Bank. I have heard personally of people who died of cancer because of this. There are, of course, too many examples of these sorts of crimes. So, this is a volcano that was just expecting to erupt.
There is one thing I want to emphasize. The whole notion of the disengagement plan pursued by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, where military bases and settlements were evacuated, was a plan initiated by him and his companions to prevent a Palestinian state. His administration said so explicitly.
Disengagement is not an example of what would happen if Israel came to an agreement with the Palestinians so that they have a completely independent and sovereign state in all the territories occupied in 1967. People on the right try to use disengagement as an example of why Israel should not withdraw from the West Bank because they say what happened in the Gaza Strip may happen again, Israel will suffer from missiles, et cetera, et cetera.
That’s a total lie. The disengagement plan was intended by Sharon not to liberate Palestinians but to prevent liberation of the Palestinians. Exactly the opposite of what the right wing says now.
The vast majority of the right-wing members of the Knesset voted for the disengagement plan, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu three or four times. And yet, he now laments disengagement and pretends as if he was against it, and that the left wing was responsible for it. That’s a sheer lie. You can Google and find the vote results. It was the right wing, apart from extreme fanatics, who voted for the disengagement because they believed it would prevent a Palestinian state.
My comrades in [the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality] — the electoral front based on the Israeli Communist Party — spoke against the disengagement plan in the Knesset. They abstained, but they didn’t vote against. I wrote an article then which criticized them, and I said they should have voted against the disengagement.
They opposed disengagement on the basis of the lack of negotiation and peace accords with the Palestinian leadership. So in 2004, we said that the Gaza Strip is going to turn into a huge prison. It’s going to explode, and the Israelis are going to pay the price too. We predicted it. Not because we are geniuses, but because the writing was on the wall.
I think you’ve well described the context from your vantage point. With that, I want to shift into talking about the current situation. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu formed a national unity government in order to carry out his “total war” on Gaza. What, from your vantage point, do you see as Netanyahu’s goal and desired outcome for the current assault on Gaza?
I think that we shouldn’t isolate the situation in Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian occupied territories and from what’s going on in Israel proper.
In 2017, Bezalel Smotrich was a relatively marginal member of the Knesset who was seen as a weirdo and a lunatic, to say the least, and a bigot. Now, of course, he is the minister of finance and a minister in the Ministry of Defense. People must understand this guy really is a bigot who believes in racial theory and who profoundly believes in Jewish supremacy.
In 2017, Smotrich wrote what is called his “subjugation plan.” The plan consists of three main elements. First, that Israel would annex the West Bank without affording basic rights for Palestinians. Gaza wasn’t then exactly on the agenda, although Smotrich wants to annex it. Current rightist ministers and members of the Knesset, as well as right-wing activists in Israel, are talking about returning to building settlements in Gaza. They are very explicit about it. Ministers are more cautious about it at the moment, but Smotrich’s subjugation plan of 2017 was intended to annex Gaza as well. But its main focus was the West Bank. It is officially an apartheid regime.
His second point was that Palestinians, if they are not ready to accept their subjugation, they would be expelled from their homeland. The third point was, implicitly although very clear, that Palestinians who are going to resist living as a subject are going to be killed.
In my view, the current Israeli government is made up of bigots. Many of the coalition members and ministers resemble — to give examples known to Americans — people like Alabama Gov. George Wallace and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke.
This government from the beginning wanted to realize one way or another, perhaps not in full, but at least partly, Smotrich’s subjugation plan. What better way to achieve the subjugation plan than under the smokescreen of war?
I have been punished for saying this by the Ethics Committee of the Knesset, but I must say the truth. The government of Israel has an interest in violence and war … not interested in [having come to pass] the extent of the carnage [occurring] that Hamas did … [but] the government of Israel has been interested in, to a lesser extent, some sort of tension and violence in order to carry out the plan.
In my view, that’s one of the main reasons why they so easily allow settlers to pogrom Palestinians in the West Bank. I believe that the government of Israel wanted to ignite a fire, either in the West Bank, in Gaza or with Syria. They will use this to realize at least part of the subjugation plan with some support of the international community. That is, in my view, what led to what is going on now.
Now the government of Israel is carrying out the subjugation plan through three different strategies. The first strategy is vis-à-vis Gaza, with the terrible assault and massacre of innocent civilians who are the main victims.
I have heard, not from anyone in the government but from people from the rightist parties of the coalition, calls for the evacuation of the north of Gaza to be expanded and lead to further forced expulsion of Palestinians altogether from the Gaza Strip, either to Sinai in Egypt or to other places. This is one strategy.
The second strategy is being pursued in the West Bank. I mentioned before that for many months now, the settlers have been totally free to do whatever they like under the auspices of the occupation forces and with the encouragement of the government.
They not only, as they have done in the past, set fire to fields, cut down trees or break windows of cars and shops and houses, but now the settlers actually have gotten the green light to kill. They murder Palestinians without any limitation. They are not stopped in advance. They are not arrested afterward, let alone charged or prosecuted.
One example of this occurred just a few days ago, in the Palestinian village of Qusra in the West Bank. Settlers invaded freely, shot everywhere and killed four innocent Palestinian civilians. The day after, at the funeral, they came back and shot dead a father and his son. As far as I know, no one was arrested or investigated. They have a green light to murder. This is ethnic cleansing by violence — as defined by the United Nations.
Two or three weeks ago I personally visited pastoral communities in the West Bank and discovered that these communities had already been expelled. You have to understand, these are not small pastoral communities that have been forced to leave by threats of guns. The area of these communities is double that of Tel Aviv, so it is huge in size. That’s the second strategy of the subjugation plan.
The third strategy is within Israel. Within Israel, Palestinians make up about 20-21 percent of citizens of Israel. They have basic rights, like to vote and be elected, relative freedom of speech, but are not equal to Jewish citizens. But now, much of their freedom of expression, association, movement etc. is under threat.
For instance, it is forbidden to demonstrate and protest against the war. The “only democracy in the Middle East” forbids demonstrations, of both Arab and Jewish citizens — not in support of Hamas, perish the thought — but to oppose the war or simply express humane sympathy for the innocent civilians of Gaza. They are not allowed to do so. Yesterday, there was an attempt by my friends and comrades in Haifa, in the north of Israel, to demonstrate. It was brutally disbanded by the police who beat them and arrested some of them. Right now, it is a fascist regime, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It is forbidden to express sympathy for the people of Gaza. It’s forbidden to express pain for the kids in Gaza being killed. It’s forbidden to object to the war on social media. People have been fired from their workplaces for doing so. Students have been suspended from their colleges and universities. We’re not talking about one or two people; we’re talking about over 100 and perhaps hundreds. So this is a part of the strategy, as the main victims of the repression are Palestinian citizens.
It’s also true that there are many Jews this is affecting as well. A friend of mine, just today, announced that he was fired from a school he was teaching in because he wrote an objection to the war on Facebook. But the main victims are Palestinians. The state wants them to be silent. The state wants them to bow on their knees in order to live, not to be citizens but subjects. This is part of the subjugation plan.
The worst part I left for the end. It is now legitimate to kill and shoot Palestinian citizens as well as democratic or leftist Jews, as far as the public discourse is concerned. It is not only the public discourse, as the police have turned into a private militia of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
I will give you two examples. One week ago, there were two demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the war. It was still allowed then. At one of them, the police beat some of the demonstrators, men and women who were 70-plus years old. And then another slightly bigger demonstration, a few hours afterwards, again in Tel Aviv, was viciously and violently attacked by bystanders. The police didn’t help the demonstrators and assisted those who attacked them.
It is not just the police. There are militias of settlers and bigots who are now armed by the state. The minister that I mentioned, this bigot, issued a decree that makes it easier for everyone to get arms. Many of the people, not all, but many of the people who are armed now are bigots of the kind like Baruch Goldstein, the man who assassinated 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron 30 years ago.
They are trained. They have training camps. They are organized on social networks and WhatsApp. They have targets, names of leftists and Palestinians with their addresses etc. The writing is on the wall. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. They are now motivated, equipped with arms and training, and with a green light from the government. It’s only a matter of time before they begin to shoot people.
To give you another example: There is a good friend of mine — a very radical leftist who is also an ultra-Orthodox Jew. He is a very prominent voice against the occupation and racism. His name is Israel Frey. He lives in Bnei Brak. He was assaulted by a right-wing Israeli mob a few days ago at his house. They didn’t succeed in entering the house, but outside there were a few hundred people who were throwing things. I called him once I heard what was going on. When I got a hold of him, he couldn’t really speak, as it was clear that he was defending his little kids in his house and couldn’t get out. He was afraid that they would break in.
It took time for the police to get there. When they got there, they accompanied him into his car and left him there. They didn’t defend him. They didn’t protect him. They didn’t accompany him to a secure place. They just left him there, and he had to run with his car with the mob chasing him until he got to a hospital in Tel Aviv where he could enter and use the security of the hospital. For a few days now, he’s been hiding in a shelter. There’s no protection from the state and from the police. That’s another part of the subjugation plan.
So to conclude, what’s going on in the area is first and foremost, of course, a continuous bloodshed in which Palestinians, mainly, but many, too many Israelis as well, of course, are butchered and the death toll is on the rise. There is ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and to some extent in East Jerusalem. There is also a serious and immediate danger of a massacre and civil war within Israel. Now, first and foremost, of course, I call upon everyone in the international community, the UN and President Joe Biden’s administration to do whatever possible to stop it and prevent yet more deterioration.
Blood is going to be spilled within Israel by these fascists, by these militias that I mentioned are accompanied by the police — who themselves are already functioning as a militia. Once that begins, it’s going to be too late to stop. So I beg you all to do something to stop it now before it’s too late for everyone.
At the same time, I totally oppose the assault on Gaza. My call for stopping the war and for peace is for the benefit of both peoples of the area, and for all of the world.