Bill on death penalty for Palestinian terrorists passes preliminary Knesset vote

Legislation receives support from Yisrael Beytenu opposition party, advancing in 55-9 vote, despite longstanding pushback from legal and security establishments

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a Knesset plenum session on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a Knesset plenum session on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset on Wednesday advanced a government-backed bill to impose the death penalty on terrorists who kill Israelis, approving it in its preliminary reading.

The bill was approved 55-9, with the support of the Yisrael Beytenu opposition party. It was passed alongside a near-identical version submitted by Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer, and the two will likely be combined further along in the process.

The primary legislation stipulates that courts will be able to impose the death penalty on those who have committed a nationalistically motivated murder of a citizen of Israel. However, it would not apply to an Israeli who killed a Palestinian.

The initiative has long been weighed by the Israeli right but has consistently faced opposition from the security establishment, arguing that it would not deter future terror attacks, and the legal establishment, which cites legal challenges and warns it could harm Israel in international forums.

While previous coalitions ultimately agreed to shelve death penalty legislation, the current hardline ruling bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the most right-wing in Israeli history and the initiative was one of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s central campaign promises.

His far-right Otzma Yehudit party sponsored the bill, and his fellow faction member MK Limor Son Har Melech hailed its advancement Wednesday, saying that even when Palestinian terrorists are tried and convicted, they enjoy “pleasant” prison conditions, receive stipends from the Palestinian Authority, and are often released in prisoner exchanges.

Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har Melech seen after a meeting of the Religious Zionism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During a plenum debate before the vote, she declared that “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 few years, are released in a terrorist release deal or a plea bargain and return to walking among us as any other person.”

The ultranationalist MK, whose first husband was killed in a terror attack in 2003, said imposing the death penalty on terrorists is “the ethical, just and necessary” thing to do.

In his own remarks during the debate, Hadash-Ta’al MK Ahmad Tibi said his party is ideologically opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances, and noted that Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef recently came out in opposition to the death penalty, as did previous chief rabbis.

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh called Wednesday’s vote was “a continuation of a racist approach” by Israel. “The one who should be tried for his crimes is the occupation, not a people suffering under the oppression of the occupiers.”

Instituting a death penalty for terrorists had already been high on the hard-right coalition’s agenda before a string of deadly Palestinian attacks killed 14 people since the beginning of the year. The terror wave, which comes amid escalating deadly tensions in the West Bank, has re-energized calls for harsher punitive action against Palestinian perpetrators as well as more severe deterrent measures.

Hebrew media reported earlier this month that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara was set to oppose the law on the grounds that it poses significant constitutional difficulties and goes against Israel’s declarations on the matter in international forums and against the international trend of limiting the use of the death sentence.

Israeli security forces secure the scene of a terror shooting in Huwara, in the West Bank, near Nablus, February 26, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The Ynet news site quoted from what it said was Baharav-Miara’s planned legal opinion, saying the law wouldn’t serve as a deterrent, especially when the perpetrators are ideologically motivated and willing to accept being killed anyway. She also purportedly noted that the only Western country that still uses death sentences is the US, and even there only 31 out of 50 states still have it, with seven having nixed it over the past decade.

Israel’s penal code includes capital punishment but only for exceedingly rare cases — Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann was one of only two people executed by the state in almost 75 years.

On Tuesday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock publicly voiced her concerns over the death penalty bill. “We have abolished this penalty,” Baerbock said during a press conference in Berlin alongside a visiting Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, adding that Germany was “talking about this with every country that has the death penalty, including the United States,” and that it has proven ineffective as a deterrent.

Baerbock noted that students in German schools are taught that Israel has only carried out the death penalty in one case — that of Adolf Eichmann, who played a major role in the Holocaust, in the early 1960s — despite facing a bigger terror threat than any other country.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, right, and her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen leave a news conference after a meeting at the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

“It is always an argument that we have used and I say, as a friend of Israel, that I am convinced that it would be a mistake to enact a death penalty law,” she noted.

(In fact, a second man was executed in Israel — military officer Meir Tobianski — following a 1948 decision by an IDF court-martial to convict him of treason during the War of Independence, though the evidence was circumstantial and he was posthumously cleared of the charges.)

Ben Gvir rebuked Baerbock for her comments.

“The last ones who should be preaching to us are the Germans,” the far-right minister was quoted as saying by the Ynet news website. “They should think 1,000 times before talking about Israel’s right to defend itself.”

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