Ministers advance death penalty bill for terrorists who murder Israelis

Ben Gvir says initial passage on day of deadly West Bank attack ‘symbolic’; AG said to oppose legislation, which is expected to be softened; Netanyahu allegedly tried to delay vote

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with the head of the Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with the head of the Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The government gave initial approval Sunday to a bill that would allow courts to impose the death penalty for deadly terror attacks against Israeli citizens, despite the attorney general’s expected opposition and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party allegedly seeking to delay it.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance the bill, an item that National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s extremist Otzma Yehudit party has long been pushing for. It will soon come up for a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum and will then be discussed by the high-level security cabinet, which is seen as likely to insert modifications.

A joint statement by Netanyahu and Ben Gvir said that the initial bill advanced Sunday stipulates that “courts will be able to impose a death penalty on those who committed a nationalistically motivated murder offense against a citizen of Israel.”

It wasn’t clear whether the final law would apply equally to Jews convicted of such offenses, although in such cases perpetrators have overwhelmingly targeted Palestinians who weren’t Israeli citizens.

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 13 Israelis in the past few weeks, including two on Sunday. 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.

“On this difficult day, when two Israeli citizens were murdered in a Palestinian terror attack, there is nothing more symbolic than passing a death penalty for terrorists law,” said Ben Gvir. “This is a moral and fair law that exists in the world’s largest democracy” — a reference to the United States — “and definitely so in a country where citizens are hit by a terror wave.”

Israeli security forces secure the scene of a shooting attack in Huwara, in the West Bank, near Nablus, February 26, 2023. Inset: Brothers Hillel (right) and Yigal Yaniv, who were killed in the attack. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90; courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government “will continue to operate in all ways… to deter terrorists and to maintain the security of Israel. Our response to terror is to strike back against terror with strength and deepen our roots in our land.”

The joint statement came after Ben Gvir’s office issued a statement slamming Likud for allegedly asking him not to bring the bill for a vote Sunday. That statement said Ben Gvir had refused the request, citing a pledge in the parties’ coalition agreement to pass such a law before the 2023 budget is passed. The budget was approved by the cabinet on Friday.

Hebrew media reported last week 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.

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 was also purportedly claiming 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.

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara seen during a welcome ceremony for her in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022 (Courtesy Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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. Right-wing politicians, including some in the current opposition, have long pushed for a law imposing the death penalty on terrorists, but efforts have fizzled without sufficient support and due to legal issues. In 2017, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman proposed a bill allowing a court to execute any terrorist whose attack results in a victim’s death, and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked pushed for capital punishment to be imposed over any attack that results in a child’s slaying.

In 2016, then-attorney general Avichai Mandelblit submitted a legal opinion to the government in which he argued that a death sentence does not deter terrorists who already know they have a good chance of dying in the course of their attack.

In 2018, Netanyahu okayed lawmakers to push ahead with a death penalty bill despite professional opposition. At the time, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman told Knesset lawmakers that he was unequivocally against the measure.

“It’s not helpful,” Argaman said then. Nonetheless, a poll in 2017 found that over 70 percent of Jewish Israelis backed the measure to some degree.

Ben Gvir has pointed to large celebrations last month for Palestinian terrorists freed from prison after serving decades for killing a soldier as proof for the need to execute convicted terrorists.

Arab Israeli Karim Younis is carried by friends and relatives following his release after 40 years in an Israeli prison for kidnapping and murdering an Israeli soldier, on January 5, 2023, in the northern Israeli town of ‘Ara. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

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