Analysis: Why a rapist-killer in Israel will likely not get the death penalty

What is it about a murder committed by a terrorist that differentiates it in the Israeli mindset from one perpetrated by a “regular” criminal?

By Ruthie Blum, JNS

The debate over capital punishment for terrorists arose again in Israel after the body of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher was discovered in a forest on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and her killer, 29-year-old Arafat Irfaiya, confessed to sexually assaulting and stabbing her to death.

Although it took Israeli police and security services two full days to confirm that the brutal murder was an act of terrorism, the public knew the truth. This was not merely because of false rumors rampant on social media that Ansbacher had been decapitated, ISIS-style. The real reason that Israelis understood the nature of the slaying was due, sadly, to experience.

Furthermore, it turned out that Irfaiya, a Palestinian Hamas supporter from Hebron, had been detained twice in the past for terror-related activities. To top it all off, he told his interrogators that he had come to Jerusalem with a knife with the intention of killing a Jew and becoming a shahid–a “martyr” for Allah. He said that though he had not thought through how he was going to accomplish this, he happened upon Ansbacher, who was sitting by herself on a bench, and jumped on the opportunity.


Following Irfaiya’s arrest, Israelis flooded Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to demand that he and other convicted terrorists be given the death penalty, which exists in Israeli law, but has only been implemented once in the country’s history. In 1962, Nazi architect Adolf Eichmann was executed after a long trial, during which one after another of his victims testified about the horrors they were forced to endure at his hands in Europe as part of Hitler’s “final solution.”

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So averse has Israel been to imposing the death sentence since then that even Yigal Amir, convicted of assassinating Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, escaped it. Ditto for Hava Yaari—former wife of top Israeli Mideast analyst and TV personality Ehud Yaari—who, with her friend, Aviva Granot, committed the premeditated 1985 murder of 56-year-old American tourist and Holocaust survivor Mala Malavsky.

When Malavsky discovered that Yaari, her bank’s foreign-securities adviser, had embezzled $50,000 from her account, Yaari and Granot took the poor woman out in a car, beat her over the head with a rolling pin, threw her out of the vehicle and ran over her body, back and forth, to make sure she did not live to testify.

Unlike Amir, however, who will never see the light of day, Yaari–who was sentenced in 1987 to 20 years in prison, but was released in 2000 for good behavior, is roaming around free. Granot, too, was convicted and released; she died in 2015.

Their story is but one example of Israel’s overly lenient, bleeding-heart justice system. It is no wonder, then, that capital punishment is such a controversial topic in the Jewish state.

Many oppose it on the grounds that the practice of an “eye for an eye” has no place in the modern world. Others claim that it does not, in fact, deter potential murderers. Still others argue that it sometimes results in the execution of the innocent.

A current illustration is that of Roman Zadorov, who was convicted and jailed for the 2006 murder of 13-year-old Tair Rada in the bathroom of her school in Katzrin. New forensic findings that cast doubt on Zadorov’s guilt may lead to his eventual exoneration—something that would not be possible if he were dead.

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On the flip side, DNA evidence led last month to the conviction of Daniel Nahmani, who raped and murdered 17-year-old Noa Eyal in Jerusalem 21 years ago. The fact that the details of the verdict are still under a gag order suggests that they are particularly gruesome.

Still, nobody took to the streets to demand that Nahmani or any of the others be put to death. Why? What is it about a murder committed by a terrorist that differentiates it in the Israeli mindset from one perpetrated by a “regular” criminal?

There are two answers

There are two answers. One has to do with the collective memory of the Jewish people. Eichmann’s much-publicized execution, which was carried out a mere 17 years after the Holocaust, constituted a statement—to the victims of Nazi atrocities and the rest of the world—that the Jews would never again be dragged to the slaughter for being Jews. Well, Arab terrorists slaughter Israelis for being Jews.

Nevertheless, until now, no Palestinian terrorist has met Eichmann’s fate.

It is a sorry situation that might even have continued to be accepted by most Israelis if terrorists were actually punished for killing Jews, rather than rewarded by their leaders and hailed as heroes by their peers for doing so.

Which brings us to the second, more pragmatic reason that Israelis place terrorists in a different category from other criminals.

While serving time in Israeli prisons, where they band together to study the Koran and plot additional attacks, terrorists and their families receive a hefty stipend from the Palestinian Authority’s Martyrs’ Fund. The P.A. recently acknowledged that its annual “pay-for-slay” budget was NIS 1.2 billion (approximately $33 million) in 2017 and 2018.

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Terrorists also know that their incarceration is possibly temporary, due to what has come to be called “prisoner swaps,” which is a disgusting euphemism for the exchange of an innocent Israeli, dead or alive, for hundreds of Palestinian would-be “martyrs.”

Ansbacher’s killer, thus, will be in clover for his brutality and has the hope of being let out of jail at some point.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Ansbacher’s murder by announcing that by the end of the week, he would complete the “necessary staff work … to implement the law,” passed by the Knesset in July, to deduct the money paid to terrorists from the monthly amount that Israel transfers to the P.A. as per the Oslo Accords. Ironically, the Israeli bill was proposed in the wake of the Taylor Force Act—signed into law last March by U.S. President Donald Trump—stipulating that American aid to the P.A. will be withheld until it stops funneling reward money to terrorists.

In November, Netanyahu also agreed to back a bill, initiated by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beyteinu Party, which would allow a simple majority of judges, rather than a unanimous decision by a panel of three, as is currently required, to impose the death penalty on terrorists.

It is unlikely that this bill will be put to a vote before the April 9 elections. It is equally improbable that Israel will be sentencing Ansbacher’s murderer to death any time soon, if ever. It is the dreadful downside of life in a liberal country surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’”