Israel approves preliminary death penalty bill for 'terrorists' with Netanyahu's blessing

Israel approves preliminary death penalty bill for 'terrorists' with Netanyahu's blessing
Despite massive opposition from Israeli lawmakers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was influential in the Knesset's decision to support a bill that would allow both military and civil courts to sentence terrorists to death.

In a narrow 52-49 vote, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, approved the first draft of a bill which could make it easier for terrorists to be handed the death penalty. Current military law allows a person to be sentenced to death for an act of terrorism, but only if such a sentence has the unanimous support of all three sitting judges.

The new draft legislation seeks to amend the current order, and wants it replaced by a simple majority decision of the judges. The bill, sponsored by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, also aspires to expand the potential use of death penalty beyond the military courts, seeking its application in Israeli civil courts. Israel has carried out only two executions in its modern history.

The current proposed regulations does not single out any religion or ethnicity, and if adopted, would apply to both Jewish and Palestinian terrorists. The Israeli definition of "terrorism" however, is rather broad and includes, for instance, knife attacks on military personnel, which are often committed by teenagers. In August 2016, Israeli lawmakers approved the so-called Youth Bill, legalizing the imprisonment of Palestinian minors as young as 12, should they be are suspected of grave crimes, such as acts of terrorism against the state of Israel. While the draft law still has to pass through three more readings, the age of the "terrorists" has not yet been discussed.

Fierce debates Wednesday, however, raged around the ethical application of the death penalty and its compatibility with Judaism. While Judaism allows for capital punishment, Talmudic law as followed by ultra-Orthodox members of the Jewish community argues that the death penalty ceased with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Following their religious conviction, members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party walked out before the vote to consult with rabbis on the issue.

Netanyahu voiced support for the bill, despite the fact that previous Israeli governments, including those headed by him, have rejected all prior death penalty initiatives. "There are extreme cases, where people commit terrible crimes and don’t deserve to live,” the PM argued. “We’re changing the law for these situations.”

Netanyahu's stance was supported by MK Yisrael Beytenu who proposed the bill. He said, “When terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons end up going free [in prisoner exchanges], I think the most moral thing is for [terrorists] to get the death penalty.”

Others, however, voiced strong opposition to the proposed capital punishment legislation. “The death penalty will not contribute anything to the war on terrorism," said MK Eyal Ben-Reuven. "The opposite is true. Instead of deterring, it will strengthen the terrorists, who will turn into shaheeds [Arabic for martyr]. Israel has proven abilities to deal with terrorism without giving up on the strength in our values and without using our enemies’ methods.”

Opposition lawmaker Tzipi Livni called the bill "reckless, 100 percent politics," adding, that "The defense establishment opposes the death penalty." Just prior to the vote, the head of Israel's internal security service (Shin Bet) Nadav Argaman also voiced strong opposition, noting that the "terrorist death penalty law will lead to wave of kidnappings" of Jews around the world to force Israelis to release convicted Palestinian prisoners before they are executed.

Wednesday's vote was already slammed by the European Union’s ambassador to Israel. “The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity. It constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment, does not have any proven deterrent effect and allows judicial errors to become irreversible & fatal,” the EU mission said on Twitter.

In August, a poll published by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute found that 70 percent of Israeli Jews “strongly” or “moderately” supported the death penalty.  

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