MK Ofer Cassif (Hadash – Joint List), a leading member of the Communist Party of Israel, spoke with Leena Dallasheh from Jacobin magazine about the recent escalation in violence, noting its direct connection with the current political impasse in Israel and Netanyahu’s attempts to maintain control of the country. He also elaborates on his party’s vision for ending the conflict, highlighting the primacy of ending the occupation as a first step toward a just solution that must also include the right of return for refugees, and equality and rights for Palestinians within Israel. Jacobin published the interview on May 27, 2021, and following are excerpts from the talk.
Jacobin: Can you start by giving us a brief overview of the situation since the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas?
Cassif: As long as the occupation continues, the ceasefire will not change much. Of course, it changes a lot for the people who have been suffering from the recent bloodshed. But as far as the general picture is concerned, nothing has changed. It doesn’t seem that the government of Israel, and specifically Netanyahu and his thugs, are going to change anything — and if they are going to change anything, I’m afraid it’s going to be for the worse. So, in that sense, there is a lot of tension in the air, especially when you get into places like occupied East Jerusalem, the south of Israel, or the occupied territories. In those areas, there’s no profound difference since the ceasefire.
Jacobin: You tweeted a few days ago: “Netanyahu ignited a fire to maintain his role. We shall say that everywhere and in every language.” This actually ties into a question I wanted to ask you about the timing of this latest round of escalation. As you said, this fits into a longer historical pattern, but the timing of the recent escalation also seems to be connected with the political impasse within Israel, namely that Netanyahu has failed to form a government and is hold on power weak. Can you elaborate on that part of the current conflict?
Cassif: Netanyahu is a pyromaniac psychopath. I’m not the only one who says so — even people not from my political camp agree. As long as the occupation continues, the ceasefire will not change much. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel (who is not exactly a leftist) warned over two weeks ago that Netanyahu is going to “start a fire,” specifically in Jerusalem, in order to stay in power. He actually said that two or three days before the escalation itself began. Dan Halutz, the former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces — clearly not a leftist — said something very similar. And yesterday or the day before, in the newspaper Maariv, there was an article showing that people within Netanyahu’s own Likud Party are saying that he wants the escalation to continue in order to stay in power, and that if Israel goes to a fifth round of elections, he believes that he can pick up much more seats thanks to the conflict.
I do believe it’s a kind of strategy. Like I said, Netanyahu is a pyromaniac psychopath, and one of the main characteristics of psychopaths is that they don’t care about anyone. Netanyahu only wants to stay in power — in large part because he doesn’t want to go to prison for corruption charges.
Again, one cannot ignore the possibility that the beginning of this escalation was directly attached to Netanyahu’s loss of a governing mandate — he lost it to opposition leader Yair Lapid. Netanyahu has actually been laying the groundwork for such an escalation for quite a long time: in 2019, he ordered police to put fences up in Bāb al-‘Āmūd, the Damascus Gate, knowing that this was going to stir up a lot of controversy, because the Damascus Gate is a traditional place where young Palestinian people gather after they fast. He ordered the building of the fences knowing that it was going to stir rage — he did it on purpose.
There is also a long-standing project of ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah (although not just there). This ethnic cleansing actually reached much more brutal levels in the last few days before the escalation.
Some people say that far-right Knesset member and settlement leader Itamar Ben-Gvir was responsible for inciting violence in Sheikh Jarrah, but I think Netanyahu was responsible. For me, Ben-Gvir was just a proxy. Ben-Gvir went to Sheikh Jarrah, to the middle of the Palestinian neighborhood, and set up his offices in front of the houses there that are going to be evicted and handed over to Jews. But I think what Netanyahu did was give the matches to Ben-Gvir, to start the fire. Two days before Hamas began shooting missiles, Netanyahu told Ben-Gvir: “Leave Sheikh Jarrah, because if you don’t, Hamas is going to launch missiles at Jerusalem.”
Jacobin: You’ve alluded to this point, but I would like you to expand on the idea that the settler movement led by Ben-Gvir and his associates has now kind of extended its campaign within the 1948 border.
Cassif: For many years now — but, again, especially under Netanyahu — the settlers in the Palestinian occupied territories have styled themselves as the “Lords of the Land.” They see themselves as lords in the sense that no rules apply to them. In the occupied territories, they shoot Palestinians, burn their fields, and cut their trees down. They throw stones and shoot to kill — the law doesn’t seem to apply to them.
Again, this colonialist attitude has begun to seep into Israel itself. These fanatics do the things that I mentioned with no punishment, and all the while, the prime minister refers to them as if they were pioneers and heroes. Eventually, they turn the violence against Jews, too. My friend Rabbi Arik Ascherman was viciously attacked by settlers. If they are allowed to attack Palestinians, why not do the same with a human rights activist, even if they are not Palestinians — even if they are Jews themselves?
These settlers build their own “nests” in so-called “mixed cities” like Acre, Jaffa, Haifa, Lod — they’re not going there in order to live and build good relations with their neighbors, the Palestinians. They go there in order to substitute those indigenous neighbors. So the potential for this explosion was there all the time.
Places like Lod, Jaffa, and Acre are the seeds of this explosion. And they just waited for the right circumstances. This KKK-like atmosphere has penetrated Israel, too, because of the occupation and because of the prime minister’s policies. Netanyahu has said that he will not allow Arabs to create pogroms for Jews, but he didn’t say one word against or even refer to Jews doing lynching. That implied that it’s okay for Jews to lynch.
[CPI Editor’s note: In contemporary Israeli Hebrew slang, and from there into English spoken and written by Israelis, the terms “lynch” and “lynching” are used to denote spontaneous or opportunistic mass violence turned against one or more individuals of another ethnic or national group. This may result in death due to serious injuries sustained, but not necessarily so. The use of either of these terms here should therefore not be understood as the extrajudicial hanging of victims from the neck and physical mutilation of corpses, as became common against Blacks in the post-Civil War American south.]
Cassif: I want to be very clear and emphasize that violence against civilians is something that my friends and I totally reject. It doesn’t matter if it’s Palestinians against Jews or Jews against Palestinians. We are against this KKK-like atmosphere of lynching that has seeped into Israel because of the occupation, specifically because of the prime minister’s policies. Opposing violence against Palestinians doesn’t imply that we support the violence against Jews, and vice versa.
Jacobin: You’ve alluded to Israel’s colonial framework several times. Within that framework, how do you view your political project and that of the Joint List?
Cassif: The most important thing at the moment is to totally eliminate the occupation of 1967. This is a cancer in the body of our society. So many of the things that we’ve been experiencing in the last two weeks are a natural by-product of this occupation. This colonial project must be dismantled immediately. Here I accuse the international community of being silent for so many years and of doing nothing. They are, to a great extent, guilty for the current deterioration and escalation, and for the bloodshed, because they haven’t done anything serious to end the occupation.
The cleavage is not between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and in general; it’s between those who support Jewish supremacy and those who support equality and democracy. My struggle is not against the state of Israel. It is against the policies that make the state of Israel racist and colonialist. The first thing that should be done is to totally end the occupation of 1967, establishing a Palestinian independent sovereign state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Also, there must be a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with the decisions accepted by the UN for [the] right of return, and so on. This is the first thing that must be done.
The second thing is to tell the Israeli state — under whatever new name it would assume — that it must become a real democratic state, with no difference between citizens based on one’s ethnic origin, nationality, religion, or whatever. I’m shocked when so many leaders and states in the world refer to Israel as a democracy. Everybody knows that a modern democracy is based on one basic principle, which is equality.
We may disagree about what equality means exactly and what it should include. As a communist, of course, I think that it must include deep social and economic equality. But the very minimum that a modern democracy requires is civic equality, and Israel doesn’t even have that.
Jacobin: Some might argue that there’s a contradiction in what you’re saying, because, on the one hand, you do use a colonial framework and highlight the similarities to the apartheid regime in South Africa. But, on the other hand, you seem to be maintaining Hadash and Communist Party line of a two-state solution, which many argue is no longer viable. How would you respond to that?
Cassif: It’s a long-standing debate, especially in the last few years. I would say two things in regard to that. First of all, as a matter of principle, we support a two-state solution, because the Palestinian people never enjoyed self-determination, and we believe in a people’s self-determination in keeping with the communist legacy of Vladimir Lenin (before the Brest-Litovsk accords). We believe that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and a sovereign, independent state.
In Lenin’s time, there were debates about the self-determination of the Ukrainians, for instance, which Lenin supported. And he explained that, in order to decrease hostility between peoples who were at war, self-determination and free national liberty is a must. There’s no chance to achieve socialism in a country where there is hostility between peoples. And this is also what we say: national self-determination of the Palestinian people is not only a part of the national alliance of the Palestinian people, it is also a means for promoting a socialist society.
These are two reasons for why we support a two-state solution (and, of course, we support national rights for the national Palestinian minority in Israel, too). Our support of the two-state solution is based on those two principles: self-determination and the creation of a socialist society. And don’t forget that the Palestinians are indigenous people.
Now, I do not know anyone in my party who ideologically rejects a one-state solution. But we all view that, under the current circumstances, a one-state solution is going to be another apartheid state. It’s not going to be a democratic state, because the power is in the hands of the Jewish majority.
We must struggle for Palestinian liberation and against occupation, which is becoming much more brutal. And we must struggle for serious and profound equality within the state of Israel.