“In less than two months, Israel has killed more civilians than Russia killed in Ukraine in two years,” Israeli parliament member Ofer Cassif told me recently, expressing horror at Israel’s ongoing onslaught against the Palestinians civilians trapped under Israel’s relentless attacks in Gaza.
The Israeli government’s response to the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas “has nothing to do with the well-being of Israelis,” added Cassif, who has represented the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash-Ta’al) coalition in the Israeli Knesset since 2019. Rather, it “has everything to do with revenge … and preserving this fascist government in power,” he said.
In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Cassif — who has faced formal backlash since October for decrying what he has described as the Israeli Occupation Forces’ “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians — analyzes the roots of the Israeli government’s seeming disregard for the Israeli prisoners held by Hamas, and discusses his efforts to persuade progressives within the U.S. Democratic Party to pressure the leaders of the Israeli government to agree to a ceasefire.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
brian bean: The recent temporary cessation of bombing and the prisoner exchange have concluded. Can you talk about the current moment in Israeli politics and a little bit about some of the politics surrounding the families of the hostages? I know there’s contradictions and divisions among the families and some conflicts with the Netanyahu government. For example, Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir was on the floor of the Knesset chastising families when they spoke out against the attempt to reinstate the death penalty.
Ofer Cassif: The Netanyahu government doesn’t really care about its own citizens. The assault on Gaza has nothing to do with security. It has nothing to do with the well-being of Israelis. It has everything to do with revenge, a realization of the subjugation plan, and preserving this fascist government in power. Those are the real interests behind this assault. If one wants to really support the Israelis and the security of Israel as a state and its citizens, it must do everything to assist us in dissolving this government, because this government is an enemy of the people of Israel, and of course an enemy to the Palestinians.
There is a division in the Israeli society as a whole and of course, within the parliament. As you alluded to, Ben-Gvir and his thugs don’t care about the lives of anyone. They are messianic. Before the massacre, some of them even said so in one way or another, some very explicitly. Orit Strook, the minister of national settlements and national missions with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, said that the land of Israel is “acquired by suffering,” and in my view she sees the Israeli hostages in this way too — merely instruments in the way of “redemptions.” She initially opposed any move to negotiate on behalf of any hostages.
They don’t care about human beings at all. Those are messianic fanatics, bigots. They remind me of the worst of your [U.S.] evangelicals. They have very similar views. It’s not a coincidence. They are supported by them. They have very similar views. They don’t care about people, about the lives of human beings. They just care about their messianic nightmare. That division exists in the government, in the Knesset and in Israeli society at large. A vast majority of the Israelis see the most important objective is wanting to see the hostages back.
There are three groups in the Knesset that reflect divisions in society. There is a group of the messianic right in the Knesset who voted against the ceasefire, because for them the lives of people are not important. So they don’t care about the hostages. Of course, they will not say it in that sense. But you see the situation you described with Ben-Gvir and others in his terrible, disgusting party in what he said in the meeting at the Knesset with the families of the hostages. They are a tiny group, relatively, but unfortunately, they control the government.
The other group, which I am a part of, has called for ceasefire for many reasons. One of which is because the lives of the hostages are more important than revenge. A few weeks ago, I tweeted that if the government of Israel would’ve loved its citizens more than it hates Palestinians, the hostages would’ve been at home ages ago. I totally believe that and repeat it. So our group calls for ceasefire, and of course many of the families of the hostages support this for that reason. Even many families of those who were brutally murdered by Hamas support this. I admire them for their mental power, that they do not allow the rage they feel, justly, to overwhelm them.
They don’t let the rage become revenge. They support the ceasefire and many of them support the ending of the occupation and reaching a just peace with the Palestinians. They don’t let the rage control them and still support peace, Palestinian independence and ceasefire. This is just one part of the reason because of course most importantly we oppose the violence and call for a ceasefire also because of the unprecedented death toll and catastrophic destruction in Gaza. But the release of the hostages is also of primary value.
This is our group, so to speak. We call for ceasefire and for the total release of the hostages; all for all. That means release of all Palestinian prisoners and hostages in order to release all Israeli hostages and prisoners who are in Gaza.
There is another group that thinks that it is possible to continue with the assault on Gaza and at the same time to release the hostages. This is contradictory, two ideas that are mutually exclusive. If you want to release the hostages, you must stop the fire and exchange prisoners.
If you don’t do that, the chance of the hostages being able to leave and get back home healthy and in one piece are getting smaller by the hour. That’s something we’ll never accept. We want them to come back home and live a good life. That’s the obligation of the government. Unfortunately, the government time and time again proves that it doesn’t follow its obligations. It doesn’t do what it has to do. We continue to try to pressure it to do what it has to do as it has an obligation towards its citizens and residents. But time and time again, the government neglects them to say the least; it sacrifices them.
In regard to the prisoner exchange, I wonder if you could talk about what you think the calculations of the Netanyahu government were. Because it’s interesting that they went from declaring total war, which is still ongoing, but it seems like a step back for them to pause, to do some exchange of prisoners, and then to go back to it again. What’s happening there on the level of the state and how do you make sense of that?
Netanyahu is not interested in anything but his own good. That’s the only thing that drives him. He knows that as long as his trial goes on, he knows that eventually the chances for him to be put behind bars is very high. He is facing three serious charges and it looks almost certain that he will go to jail.
I said before that he doesn’t care about the lives of Israelis. That’s true. But he doesn’t care about anything else but his own political survival. And as long as he thinks, given the polls and whatever, that the public wants revenge to continue, he will continue with the war, with the murder of innocent civilians in Gaza. In the media he kept saying that we are going to eliminate Hamas, we are going to destroy them. But once he saw the polls, he realized that for many Israelis the release of the hostages was one of the main goals.
So he changed his behavior to try to increase his popularity. At the moment he isn’t succeeding, as whatever he does is not popular and rightly so. I’m happy about this because he has been accused, by many families of the victims, of being guilty. Not only responsible, but guilty in the killing and kidnapping of those people from the south. And I totally agree with them. Netanyahu simply changes his mind from one side to another according to what he thinks the public wants and thinks, that’s the only thing that drives him. Not security, not well-being of the citizens, not the lives, not anything more than what he thinks may keep him in power. That’s the reason he changes his mind. And he may do it time and time again, however the wind is blowing.
Can you talk about the role of Biden and the United States in all this?
We all know that in the United States, Biden is under a lot of pressure from within the Democratic Party and even by the potential voters of the Democratic Party, and we are less than one year before elections. Biden knows that he may lose those elections. I read recently, in The New York Times, that a huge amount of so-called orthodox Democratic voters are now saying they are not going to vote in the presidential elections because they will not vote for Biden because of his support for the genocidal assault on Gaza.
I’m sure that Biden is aware of that and he thinks about that. In that sense, he must make the most vague impression that he is trying to calm down the situation in general and the government of Israel.
I’m very disappointed with the so-called progressives within Democratic Party, as they are not raising their voices enough. I appealed twice to Bernie Sanders, who never answered. And others, I don’t hear them enough. On the other hand, I am very happy about Jewish Voice for Peace, who are doing tremendous, wonderful work. I salute them and really admire what they’ve been doing.
I’m afraid that there’s no real attempt, neither by the Biden administration, the EU, nor by Arab countries, to put pressure on the government of Israel. The consequence of this is that the government of Israel continues with this terrible carnage. This proves that the world’s states don’t really care as there have been no real, practical steps taken. Rhetoric is not enough. I’m afraid that the future is very gloomy as far as Gaza is concerned.
We are talking about a terrible death toll. In less than two months, Israel has killed more civilians than Russia killed in Ukraine in two years. The destruction, it’s a total destruction, especially in the north (unfortunately not only there anymore), and as you said before, they are in the south. They are bombing the southern parts of Gaza, where more than 50 percent of the people living in Gaza are refugees multiple times over.
The infrastructure is totally damaged. I mean in ruins. No water, no fuel, no medicine, no hospitals are operating. People are starving there. Literally, people are starving.
If Israel continues, because the world allows it, these crimes will compound. One example is that the people of Gaza are going to suffer from the spreading of diseases. One Israeli ex-general, Giora Eiland, who is supposedly a modest guy, said that part of the policy and strategy of Israel must be spreading diseases in Gaza to “bring victory closer.”
That may happen because there’s no way under the circumstances to prevent it. The only way to prevent it is to stop the war. And to immediately allow everyone, like the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, and all the relevant organizations to get into Gaza and immediately treat people.
And of course, infrastructure must be completely reconstructed and so on. I’m very pessimistic about the near future, in the short run. I do not see in the short run how the situation of Gaza is going to improve based on the will of the Israeli government.
But in the long run, I’m optimistic. I’m sure that in the long run, our alternative will prevail. I’m sure about it. The question is how much blood is going to be spilled, how much people are going to suffer before it is admitted that there’s no other way but the way of ending the occupation and reaching a just peace, right? There is a symbiosis, in order to make Israeli lives better, Palestinian life must be better.
We’ll do our best to make this day come as soon as possible.
It won’t happen tomorrow, but with the pressure of the international community, with our insistence against the current administration, and against the persecution we face. As you know I was suspended from the Knesset for 45 days, and my friend and comrade Aida Touma-Sliman was suspended a few weeks ago for two months, and another Palestinian member of the Knesset [Iman Khatib-Yassin] was suspended for one month.
We are under persecution, but we shall never surrender and give up. We will continue our struggle for the benefit of both peoples of the land, of Palestinians and Israelis, of Arabs and Jews, of everyone. I’m sure that we will win eventually. I’m just afraid of how many people are going to pay the highest price before.