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Israel readies new death penalty law

The Knesset has granted preliminary approval of legislation to impose the death sentence terrorists who kill Israeli citizens.

By Erin Viner

Historically, Israel adopted capital punishment upon the founding of the state in 1948 as a carry-over  policy of the British Mandate.

Only two people have been put to death over the past 75 years, however.

IDF officer Meir Tobianski was executed by firing squad during the 1948 War of Independence after being found guilty of treason, although he was posthumously exonerated when the charges were later deemed to be false.

The Knesset largely abolished capital punishment in 1954 for all charges excepting war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish People, treason and certain illegal offenses established by military law during wartime.

The second state execution was held in 1962 when Adolf Eichmann was hanged. Mossad intelligence agents captured the notorious Nazi criminal from a hideout in Argentina and smuggled him to Israel, where he was convicted at trial on 15 counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, and membership in a criminal organization. Eichmann is considered as the architect of the Holocaust during which six million Jews were killed.

In recent years, there has been rising support for introduction of the death penalty for terrorist murderers.

The new bill was submitted by Otzma Yehudit Member of Knesset (MK) Limor Son Har-Melech and Yisrael Beiteinu MK and former minister Oded Forer on 16 January 16. Identical drafts were presented in the previous 24th Knesset by MK Sharren Haskel (of the New Hope faction at that time; currently representing the National Unity Party) and current National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit. Earlier calls have been issued by Yisrael Beiteinu leader and former government minister Avigdor Liberman, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli leader reiterated that call in the wake of the 26 February murders of Israeli brothers Hillel and Yagel Yaniv by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Huwara.

“We are acting against terrorism using all means: suppression, punishment, and now also legislation with a law to deport terrorists’ families from Israel, and a death penalty law for terrorists – things that have not been present before,” declared Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Terms of the current bill call for the mandatory sentencing to death of any individuals convicted of committing intentional acts of terrorism, or the indirect killings of Israelis due to racist or anti-State actions geared at damaging the country or driving the Jewish People from their biblical homeland. The policy would also include the West Bank districts of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.

“For years, an absurd situation has prevailed in the State of Israel, in which despicable terrorists who murdered Jews are imprisoned in an Israeli prison for a period of several years, are released in a terrorist release deal or a plea deal, and return to walking among us as human beings,” MK Har-Melech told lawmakers.

Acknowledging the death penalty “will not completely eliminate terrorism,” Minister Ben-Gvir asserted that it is “a morally appropriate punishment. In a place where terrorism becomes a scourge of the state and where Jews are afraid to walk down the street of a city, in a place where murderous killers come to a synagogue and shoot, we need the death penalty. If we do not enact this law, we will not be moral and humane toward our children and families.”

The parliamentary vote of 55 in favor with 9 dissenting lawmakers advanced the bill a committee to prepare it for its first reading. All bills must pass three readings by the 120-member Knesset to become law. Many Opposition MKs were absent from the vote, held on Wednesday, to attend nationwide protests against the government’s controversial judicial reform plan.

Several organizations immediately spoke out against the bill.

“It is difficult to describe a more serious violation of human rights than the execution of a person by the state. Regardless of the gravity of the offense attributed to the person, there can be no justification for taking his life,” stated the Association for Civil Rights.

Claiming that the proposed legislation “is directed exclusively at Palestinians,” the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) charged it is designed to create “two legal systems based on race,” “morally wrong,” “contrary to the (country’s) Basic Laws” and will “bring human rights violations to an extreme.” The group also insisted that efforts to pass the government’s reform bill would result in the “abolition of judicial review” aimed at establishing “a regime of Jewish supremacy.”

MK Ahmad Tibi of the Arab Hadash-Ta’al political alliance said his faction rejects capital punishment on principle, and that religious Jews share in that view.

Even though Biblical law commands the death penalty for 36 specific offenses ranging from murder, idolatry and adultery to desecration of the Sabbath, ancient Israel rarely imposed the punishment.

A vast 68.8% of Jewish Israelis expressed support of the death penalty for Palestinians convicted of murdering Israeli civilians for nationalist reasons, according to a 2017 poll commissioned by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and the Tel Aviv University Peace Index, with 66% backing the same punishment for those found guilty of killing Israeli soldiers.