Who is Israeli MP Ofer Cassif, why is he backing South Africa at the ICJ?

A firebrand Israeli parliamentarian provoked a political and social media storm earlier this week when he signed a petition supporting South Africa’s case of genocide against Israel, which is to be heard at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

Ofer Cassif, who declared his backing for South Africa on social media, will support the country’s legal bid when it comes before the ICJ on Thursday and Friday this week.

“My constitutional duty is to Israeli society and all its residents,” he wrote on X on January 7. “Not to a government whose members and its coalition are calling for ethnic cleansing and even actual genocide. They are the ones who harm the country and the people, they are the ones who led to South Africa’s appeal to The Hague, not me and my friends.”

The Palestinian death toll from Israel’s near-100-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip has crossed 23,000 people, including nearly 10,000 children.

Who is Ofer Cassif?

Cassif is a politician from the left-wing, Arab-majority Hadash-Ta’al party, Hadash being the Hebrew acronym for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. Born in Rishon LeZion near Tel Aviv in 1964, he has been a member of the Israeli parliament for nearly five years.

Cassif has a doctorate in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and he was an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before he entered parliament.His penchant for going against the grain of Israeli society is not new. In the late 1980s, the pro-Palestinian Israeli, who is also a proud communist, spent time in jail for refusing to serve as a soldier in the occupied territories.

His pre-parliamentarian attacks on the Israeli state – for instance, calling one-time Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked “neo-Nazi scum” – led the Central Elections Committee to keep him off the ballot for the 2019 elections.

That decision was overturned by the Supreme Court, however, and he was elected that year, with Hadash-Ta’al receiving just below 4.5 percent of the national vote and six seats in the Knesset. This compares with more than 26 percent of the vote and 35 seats for each of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Kahol Lavan, the opposition political alliance led by former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who is also a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet.

Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, called Cassif “an anomaly in Israeli politics”.

“The vast majority of Israeli members of the Knesset are serving in Zionist parties – and this is not the case with Cassif,” said Mekelberg of the anti-Zionist politician.

He angered some by refusing to take a supportive stance towards Ukraine in its war with Russia. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Knesset via Zoom in March 2022, a month after the Russian invasion, Cassif declined to attend.

“I don’t take sides in a needless war that harms innocent civilians, strengthens people in power and enriches the lords of war,” said Cassif in a tweet. “I do not support nationalists and persecutors of the communists in Ukraine, and no, neither do I support Putin and the Russian communist-hating nationalists. No to war – yes to peace.”

What is his vision for Palestine?

Cassif is a staunch supporter of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

In December 2023, during a conversation which was transcribed on the website of the Communist Party of Israel, he said, “The Palestinians, as a people, are entitled to have their own independent state.

“The compromise is by dividing the land alongside the state of Israel, an independent, sovereign, Palestinian state, which would exist in the old territories that Israel occupied in June ’67. That means the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. There is no other way.”

He is strongly opposed to Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories and has protested against them. In February 2022, he joined protesters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, where families were being evicted from their homes so that settlers could be moved in.

How has Cassif’s stance gone down with the Israeli people?

Not well. Cassif is one of just 400 Israelis, in a population of nearly 9.5 million, to sign a petition supporting South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel. As a member of the Knesset, his public act of defiance has gone down like a red rag to a bull.

In the wake of the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, which prompted the country to unleash its campaign of aerial bombardments against Gaza, Cassif was suspended from the Knesset for 45 days for criticising the war.

Fellow Israeli parliamentarian Oded Forer called Cassif’s decision to stand against the country of his birth “treasonous”, adding that his “words can no longer be heard while the blood of our soldiers and citizens screams from the ground”.

Forer is currently collecting lawmakers’ signatures in a bid to have Cassif thrown out of the Knesset. Under Knesset rules, Forer needs to convince 70 members of parliament to support his bid and then gain approval from the Knesset House Committee, before parliament can vote on Cassif’s expulsion.

But Cassif appears to enjoy the rough and tumble of Israel’s volatile political scene. “He is, in many ways, more of an activist than a parliamentarian,” said Mekelberg of Cassif. “And what you see is what you get.”

Cassif lost friends in the Hamas assault, which killed some 1,139 people. Indeed, in an October 19, 2023, interview with New York-based Waging Nonviolence, he called the Hamas incursion “morally despicable”.

But in the same interview, 12 days after Israel began its bombardment of Gaza, he told the non-profit media organisation that his vociferous rejection of Israel’s military response had led to him being “viciously attacked by Israeli right-wingers, including death threats, for my view”.

He added, “They simply cannot tolerate, and they wouldn’t like to accept that I, and everyone else, can show sympathy and empathy for the innocent people in Gaza. At the same time that one shows sympathy and care for the people of Israel. It’s not a contradiction.”

What do pro-Palestinian Israelis think of him?

On social media, global supporters of Palestinian rights have lauded Cassif’s decision to go public with his stance on the South African ICJ case against Israel. However, on the ground in Israel itself, opinions about him among the pro-Palestinian left are a little more nuanced.

“He is someone we respect and support for his stance against the genocide, despite there being some political differences with some of us,” said Neta Golan, an active member of Israelis Against Apartheid.

Ofer Neiman, a pro-Palestinian Israeli activist from Jerusalem, said he believes that Cassif is too “soft” on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Neiman added, “I [also] disagree with him on … [his] reluctance to consider other options beyond the two-state solution. But Palestine and the genocide is the focus here. So, in a nutshell, he’s a fellow dissident to me.”

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