Knesset to consider law demanding death penalty for terrorists

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads the charge to adopt the “death penalty bill,” which mandates capital punishment for terrorists. 

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Capital punishment has only been imposed twice in the history of the Jewish State and, according to laws already on the books, can only be used in the case of war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people and treason. While the execution by hanging of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962 remains a major event in Israeli history, the 1948 execution by firing squad of Meir Tobianski for treason is less well known. He was exonerated posthumously a year after his death. The new law would allow death sentences for terrorists.

Israel inherited the British Mandatory code of law, which allowed the death penalty for a number of crimes, but in 1954 Israel abolished the death penalty for murder as one of the crimes punishable by death. Although there is already a legal option for the death penalty under existing law for certain crimes, capital punishment is rarely sought by Israeli prosecutors who have not called for the death sentence since the 1990s.

Leading Israeli political scientist Prof. Avraham Diskin from the Hebrew University told World Israel News (WIN) that he has mixed feelings about the new law. Diskin said, “We already have laws on the books but they are not implemented. The major reasons in favor are emotion and revenge. Deterrence is also a reason, and so is the elimination of possible blackmail to secure the condemned man’s release.”

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Arguments against the death penalty

Diskin told WIN that the arguments against the death penalty are also compelling. He told WIN, “I understand the arguments from the other side who say there really is no deterrence because most terrorists are ready to die. Also, what if we make a mistake and execute the wrong person?” Diskin added, “It’s hard to find a fair balance, but emotionally I am in favor of capital punishment. Israel has been under an existential threat for at least 100 years and yet we have a merciful legal system that is more lenient than most world democracies.”

The head of Amnesty International in Israel Yonatan Gher urged Israel not to adopt the new law. Gher told WIN, “The death penalty is against international law, period. In any case, laws allowing capital punishment are already on the books and no additional law is needed. This is a populist law.”

According to Gher, “Israel has a fantastically good record on the issue. The US is the only democracy in the world that has the death penalty. Enlightened nations of the world maintain that it’s amoral to take a life. Executions are fading from the world and are used mostly by totalitarian states. For Israel to swim against the current would be an abomination.”

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The six coalition heads approved the measure on Sunday and on Monday the bill mandating the death penalty for terrorists will be raised to a preliminary vote in the Knesset plenum.

A ‘historic day’ for Israel?

MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu) called it a “historic day in the State of Israel.” Ilatov explained, “After years in which the party has been promoting the death penalty for terrorists and after it was rejected by the Knesset and the government, the death penalty bill for terrorists has finally been approved by the coalition leaders’ forum.”

According to MK Ilatov, “The legislation is very simple and very clear – a terrorist who comes to kill innocent civilians will be sentenced to death. There will be no more convenient prison conditions, no more pictures of freed murderers, no more academic degrees for prisoners,” said Ilatov, adding, “while bereaved families face unbearable pain and sorrow every day, the terrorists enjoy comfortable conditions in the prisons. This law will fix an historic injustice.”

Liberman endorsed the death penalty law, saying, “The death penalty for terrorists will be a significant deterrent. We must not allow terrorists to know that after a murder they have committed, they will sit in prison, and may be released in the future. Our struggle against them must be very determined.” Liberman’s party has long advocated introducing the death penalty for terrorists. The issue was one of its key campaign promises in the 2015 elections.

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Opposition to the the new law

MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he opposes the new law. Shai said, “Throughout history there have been many terrorists deserving of the death penalty, and yet the state has refrained from imposing this. The death penalty does not deter, but rather creates heroes of terror. Therefore, in the civilized world to which we belong, we impose life sentences but refrain from the death penalty.”

A poll last July found that almost 70% of respondents said they were in favor of the death penalty for terrorists, with 25.8% expressing “moderate support” and 44% “strong support.”

Previous death sentence legislation failed to gather enough support. That may change this time around with the support of Prime Minister Netanyahu. In July, Netanyahu spoke in favor of the death penalty. The Prime Minister’s endorsement followed the terror attack in the community of Halamish, in which a Palestinian terrorist stabbed three family members of the Salomon family to death. Netanyahu said he supported the death penalty for the terrorist, saying it was a fitting punishment for a “base murderer.”