Israel intent on facilitating death penalty for “terrorists”

Israel intent on facilitating death penalty for “terrorists”

Graffiti depicting two Israeli soldiers pointing their weapons at a Palestinian woman in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

(Chloé Demoulin)

Avigdor Liberman, current defence minister and head of the ultranationalist party Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), had promised it. The measure is now well on track.

The bill facilitating recourse to the death penalty for terrorists was passed on first reading by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) on 3 January 2018. Out of a total of 120 MPs, 52 voted in favour, and 49 against.

Israeli law already allows the death penalty to be applied, although only under specific circumstances, such as in the case of war crimes. It has only been served on one occasion so far in Israel, in 1962, against Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann.

In theory, military courts in Israel are also entitled to issue death sentences against Palestinians for the murder of Israeli citizens in the West Bank.

Such procedures must, however, meet two conditions. Firstly, the death sentence must be requested by the military prosecutor. Secondly, the decision must be taken unanimously by a panel of three judges. That has never been the case.

The bill introduced by the government proposes that the military prosecutor no longer be required to request the death penalty and that unanimity should no longer constitute a precondition and that a two-thirds majority be sufficient for judges to sentence a terrorist to death.

The bill has the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

“I think that in extreme situations there is also a simple logic, and the simple logic is if someone slaughters and laughs, he will not spend the rest of his life in jail, but will be executed,” he argued before the members of the Knesset on 3 January.

“The legislation should be very simple and very clear: a terrorist who comes to kill innocent civilians will be sentenced to death. No more convenient prison conditions, no more pictures of cheers for freed murderers, no more academic degrees,” said Robert Ilatov, head of the Yisrael Beitenu parliamentary group, in his speech before the Knesset.

He argued that the conditions imposed on Palestinians having murdered an Israeli were not on a par with the deep pain endured on a daily basis by the families over the loss of their loved one.

“A barbaric, unjust and discriminatory practice”

While stressing his condemnation of the terrorist attacks led by Palestinians, the ambassador of the European Union in Israel, Emanuele Giaufret, immediately denounced the bill as being contrary to human dignity and to human rights. “We do not believe the death sentence to be conducive to progress,” he said in an interview with Israeli newspaper Ynet.

The head of the French association Ensemble contre la peine de mort (Together against the Death Penalty), Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, explained to Equal Times that he too regrets the Israeli move.

“Israel was so far seen as an abolitionist country with regard to common crimes. It was on the right side of history. With this new bill, however, it breaks away from the diplomatic consensus. It is very worrying,” he admits.

“There is some confusion in the terminology used,” he added. “We must stop considering terrorist crimes, owing to the horror associated with them, as somehow not pertaining to the category of ordinary crimes. Extraordinary crimes refer to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Beyond the debate on the inhumane nature of the death sentence, the text presented by the Israeli government raises a number of questions regarding its scope.

Would the death sentence also apply in the case of a Jewish extremist who kills a Palestinian in the West Bank? Questioned on this point in Parliament by an Arab MP, the prime minister replied: “In principle, yes.”

But according to Amnesty International Israel’s head of media and communications, Gil Naveh, the bill is “specifically targeted at Palestinians and is, therefore, discriminatory”.

This view is supported by Addameer, an association that works for the rights and support of Palestinian prisoners. This text perpetuates "the [Israeli] policy of systematic discrimination against the Palestinian people”, it denounced in a press release published on 4 January.

It should be noted that the application of the death sentence against Jews would be contrary to the Halaka (Jewish law). The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, has, in fact, spoken out against the bill, fearing that it may also apply to Jews. “It is not a matter of right or left, but a matter of judgement,” he declared in a public statement on 7 January.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is also worried that the sentencing to death of Palestinians may inspire renewed attacks on the Jewish diaspora.

“Pending the verdict, there will be a great commotion across the world and the Jewish people will be in danger,” he warned.

According to Israeli media, the head of Israel’s internal intelligence service, Shin Bet, allegedly also warned the government against going through with the bill, arguing it would effectively contribute to turning Palestinian terrorists into heroes.

The draft put forward by Avigdor Liberman nevertheless wields considerable support among the Israeli public. According to an opinion poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute in August 2017, over two thirds (70%) of Israelis said they were in favour of the death sentence for Palestinians who had murdered civilians.

Such a radical trend may be explained by the series of brutal attacks carried out by Palestinians against Jewish settlers in the West Bank in recent months, such as the one that took place in Halamish, in July.

Added to this is the fact that thousands of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom had murdered Israelis, have been released as part of the Oslo Accords or hostage exchange deals, including the freeing by Israel of 1000 Palestinian prisoners, in 2011, in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, a French-Israeli soldier who was being detained by Hamas.

According to Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, however, public opinion should not dictate the stances taken by governments on major human rights issues.

“It is a matter of educating public opinion, informing it that justice is not obtained by means of vengeance. And certainly not by carrying out the death sentence, which constitutes a barbaric, unjust and discriminatory practice and paves the way for miscarriages of justice, with irreversible consequences,” he explained.

The Israeli bill still has to undergo three votes in the Knesset before its final adoption. If it were to go through, its opponents could still challenge its legality before the Israeli Supreme Court.

This story has been translated from French.