Israel's right-wing is stoking violence in the country, says anti-war MP

Ofer Cassif, who was almost expelled from Knesset for supporting South Africa's genocide case, says he is undaunted by death threats

'I won't stop struggling for justice,' says Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish member of the Knesset's Arab majority Hadash-Ta'al bloc. EPA
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Ofer Cassif has to think twice before he walks the streets of his town in central Israel, and he can't do so alone.

Ever since the October 7 attacks, in which several of his friends were killed and others taken hostage by Hamas, the Israeli parliamentarian has received death threats over his criticism of Israel's war in Gaza.

Most recently, the 59-year-old MP was almost expelled from the Knesset for condemning the killing of more than 30,000 people in Gaza.

Mr Cassif, who is the only Jewish member of the Knesset's Arab majority Hadash-Ta'al bloc, narrowly survived a vote in February to oust him from Israel's parliament over his support of South Africa's case against Israel at the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The war is not against Hamas, it's against the Palestinian people. They pay the price
Ofer Cassif

The case accuses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government of committing genocide in Gaza.

“There have been death threats. People are really seeking violence. There are places in my city I cannot go, I can't just walk down the street. I need bodyguards,” he told The National.

Members of the Knesset sought to expel Mr Cassif under the Suspension Law enacted in 2016, which he said was designed to push Arab politicians out of Israel's parliament.

This allows lawmakers to call for the expulsion of colleagues deemed to support armed struggle against Israel, and other actions considered to be against national interests.

The former political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem has long spoken out against Israel's occupation, and was the first Israeli to refuse to serve in the occupied territories during the First Intifada, which began in 1987.

In 2019, he was barred from running for the Knesset on allegations he supported terror against Israel – the same allegations levelled against him over his support for the ICJ case.

“It's total hogwash," said Mr Cassif. "I've never supported armed struggle against Israel, I'm part of Israeli society, I don't want my society to be attacked … [but] it shows how grave the situation is.

"I'm against any kind of carnage and massacre.

"The war is not against Hamas, it's against the Palestinian people. They pay the price. We all know that the vast majority of the victims are innocent civilians.”

Support for Mr Netanyahu has hit an all-time low over his response to the October 7 attacks on southern Israel, in which Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people and abducted 240.

Protesters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have only grown in number as the war continues, and the government rejects repeated proposals to halt the fighting and secure the release of Israeli hostages still held in the Palestinian enclave.

Among those held in Gaza are friends of Mr Cassif. Another friend was killed with her husband on October 7, just minutes after sending a text from the safe room of her home in a southern kibbutz.

He is clear in condemning the Hamas attack, and says the difficulties of fighting against “prevalent” racism in Israel is mixed with pain from his own personal losses.

“I have never allowed myself to allow pain and emotions to control me,” said Mr Cassif.

“The ongoing occupation and siege on Gaza and the crimes of the occupation do not whatsoever justify the massacre by Hamas, but at the same time, the Israeli government is pursuing a massacre in Gaza.”

Even before the war, critics said Mr Netanyahu was beholden to far-right elements of his government that allowed him to cobble together a coalition to regain and cling on to public office amid repeated rounds of failed elections and a corruption trial.

Among the kingmakers are National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a staunch supporter of the war in Gaza who has called for the deportation of Palestinian citizens and the death penalty for Palestinian militants.

Mr Ben-Gvir, who lives in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, supported the motion to expel Mr Cassif, and was himself convicted of inciting racism against Palestinians.

In the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack, he loosened gun laws and vowed to arm thousands of Israeli settlers.

“I am afraid we are very close to a huge amount of violence in Israeli society,” said Mr Cassif.

He also denounced what he said is ethnic cleansing in the West Bank under the “smokescreen” of the war in Gaza.

“This terrible government, this bloody government, is interested in igniting a fire. Ben-Gvir distributes weapons like they are clothes or food,” said the MP.

He'll do whatever he can in order to stay in power, at the expense of the lives of everyone. He doesn't even care for the lives of Israeli soldiers, let alone the hostages
Ofer Cassif on Benjamin Netanyahu

“Those who belong to the far right, once they get the order from Ben-Gvir, they will use them. They're just waiting for the day.”

His comments recall the violence that swept across Israel in the summer of 2021, when crowds attacked Arab communities amid Israeli air strikes on Gaza and raids on Al Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City in East Jerusalem – often a tipping point for Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

The mainly Arab city of Lod, near Tel Aviv, was placed under curfew as mobs attacked Arab homes and civilians. These scenes were repeated in Nazareth, Acre, Ramle and Haifa, Israel's third largest city.

As Ramadan approaches – with the holy month set to begin around March 11 – fears of violence in Jerusalem and against Arab communities in Israel mount.

Anti-war demonstrations are banned in Arab cities, and ministers have vowed to curb Arab Israeli access to Al Aqsa during the Holy Month.

Even if blood is not spilt within Israel itself, Mr Cassif says Mr Netanyahu will keep war raging in Gaza for his own sake.

“He'll do whatever he can in order to stay in power, at the expense of the lives of everyone. He doesn't even care for the lives of Israeli soldiers, let alone the hostages,” said Mr Cassif.

The MP is not the first to be targeted for calling for peace. Israeli filmmakers, journalists and peace activists have been beaten, threatened and surrounded in their homes for voicing support for the Palestinian people.

In mid-October, the home of ultra-Orthodox journalist Israel Frey was attacked by a right-wing mob following his criticism of Israel's war on Gaza.

Despite the dangers, Mr Cassif vows to continue.

“The vast majority of my grandparent's families were killed in Europe during the Holocaust, and I think that's a very strong motivation in my struggle, because many times I find myself thinking what would have happened if more people struggled against the Nazis 90 years ago,” he said.

“There are two ways that I stop. Either I get sick, or someone assassinates me. But as long as I can, I won't stop struggling for justice.”

Updated: March 03, 2024, 4:54 AM