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Israeli lawmaker on the U.N. genocide case against Israel

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Two days of arguments have concluded at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over whether Israel's government is committing genocide in Gaza. The case was brought by South Africa, and Israel has called the accusations baseless, saying that it's defending itself against Hamas. Israel made their case at the court on Friday and opened by discussing the attacks of October 7.

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TAL BECKER: The events of that day are all but ignored in the applicant's submissions, but we are compelled to share with the court some fraction of its horror. The largest calculated mass murder of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust. We do so not because these acts - however sadistic and systematic - release Israel of its obligations to uphold the law as it defends its citizens and territory. That is unquestionable. We do so because it is impossible to understand the armed conflict in Gaza without appreciating the nature of the threat that Israel is facing and the brutality and lawlessness of the armed force confronting it.

LIMBONG: The case has generated a lot of debate, especially within Israel, and particularly for Ofer Cassif. He's a member of Israel's legislative body, the Knesset, representing the left-wing Hadash party. Cassif expressed his support for South Africa's case and is now facing calls for his expulsion by fellow lawmakers. I spoke with him recently about his views and the controversy they've generated, and he started by explaining what exactly he'd like to see happen as a result of this trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OFER CASSIF: So what is needed is a kind of an organization or institution that may - must be as impartial and unbiased as possible to investigate what's going on in Gaza. So this is one thing, that this is a - I do not want to say that the legal concept of genocide is relevant for what's going on in Gaza because I don't know. But I do want it to be investigated impartially, and I think that the ICJ is one of the right institutions to do so.

The second thing, which, in my view, is even more important, stems from my basic ideological value, which puts human beings and their well-being and lives as a superior value. We know that the death toll, not to mention the destruction, the starvation, the thirst, the lack of hospitals and medicine. That's unacceptable. That's unacceptable. It doesn't matter who is responsible. That should be investigated and stopped.

And also the hostages - there are still 136 Israeli hostages in the hands of the murderous Hamas. They are dying. They're literally - they are dying. They have no medicine. They are held under terrible conditions, tortured. More and more Israelis begin to understand that the only way to get those poor hostages back home as healthy and as fast as possible is by exchange of prisoners and stopping the war. So that's an instrument that we have to use, given the conditions in Israel.

LIMBONG: Well, even if the ICJ says Israel should stop its assault on Gaza, Israel really has no reason to stop, right? They claim their actions are in self-defense, and also the court's decision would be difficult to enforce. So what's your motivation here?

CASSIF: Look. The motivation for - is to use any means that we have, internationally as well, to stop the bloodshed and to save those lives I was talking about, of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

LIMBONG: You know, so far, about 85 members of the Knesset who, you know, who have signed a petition calling for your expulsion. Do you feel like you have any support for your stances?

CASSIF: First of all, I have my own, you know, comrades in my party and movement and, of course, in the Knesset and outside. And they are totally supportive. And I visit, you know, the families - many of the families, not all of them - but some of the families, you know, of the victims who were murdered by the Hamas, and I visit the families of the hostages.

And I must say that among them, there's a lot of support for my and our views. And it's - for me, it's much more encouraging than anything else because those are the main victims, and I feel very close to them emotionally. And so I'm happy that I have a support among them, of course, obviously, not all of them. But the most important thing for me is to follow in and to behave and act according to my beliefs.

LIMBONG: You know, you've talked about how your political activism is tied to your Judaism, even though you're an atheist. And I wonder, how did your upbringing inform, you know, your decision in this specific case?

CASSIF: I strongly believe that the main ideas of Judaism and heritage are justice, peace and equality. And I tell you something else, which I think that is even stronger. I think that originally, and you can see it especially when you refer to the prophets, that the prophets were dissidents. I think Judaism is a very strong legacy of dissidents, and dissidence means to stay by justice against the government or the ruler once the ruler or the government violates basic principles of justice and the equality.

LIMBONG: That's Ofer Cassif. He is a member of the Israeli Knesset. Thank you so much for your time.

CASSIF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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