A Death Penalty Only for Palestinians

There are so many reasons to oppose capital punishment. But Avigdor Lieberman's attempt to adopt it is particularly odious.

Avigdor Lieberman
Avigdor Lieberman. Ilan Assayag

The question of the death penalty is once again on the public agenda, because this was one of MK Avigdor Lieberman’s demands in his negotiations to bring his Yisrael Beiteinu party into the coalition. But Lieberman will apparently give up on a bill sponsored by Sharon Gal, a former Knesset member from his party, that would have allowed Israel’s civilian courts to impose the death penalty for terrorist murders.

Instead, he is focusing on an attempt to actualize an existing but hitherto dormant legal provision allowing military courts in the territories to impose the death penalty. This would be done by scrapping the rule that capital punishment can be imposed only if it is unanimously approved by the military judges hearing the case. Lieberman’s proposal would allow capital punishment even if only a majority of the judicial bench supports it.

It should be noted that as long as the military prosecution’s policy of not even seeking the death penalty remains unaltered, the possibility of capital punishment is unlikely to arise. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the new legislation is also an attempt to sway the military prosecution and instruct it on how to behave.

Therefore, to all the known arguments against the death penalty — which have led to its abolition in all Western democracies aside from a few U.S. states — an additional argument must be added, one that justifies a special and vigorous opposition to the current effort to enact capital punishment: This is an attempt to apply the death penalty to only one population group only: the Palestinians. After all, an Israeli citizen who perpetrates a terrorist murder (like the murder of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma, according to the indictment) will be brought to trial in a civilian court, not a military one.

This selective application of the death penalty (which admittedly already exists on paper, but which the government is now seeking to implement) is liable to further erode Israel’s international legitimacy as a country aspiring to belong to the family of democratic states. And on this issue, it won’t be possible to rely on the American precedent, because capital punishment in America isn’t applied selectively to a certain population group.

Aside from the discrimination the government is seeking to promote, the very fact that this demand to allow capital punishment, whether by military or civilian courts, is even being discussed in principle ought to worry us. Morally, this is a shocking punishment: A state is taking a life in the name of its citizens. And this is happening at a time when even the best researchers haven’t succeeded in proving that capital punishment creates deterrence, and despite the possibility, which has occurred in practice, that an innocent person might be convicted.

The claim that the state ought to have the authority to put terrorists to death by court order also leads to support for executions motivated by revenge. This is the road to moral degeneration, ending in a violent, undemocratic society that lacks the rule of law. In this regard, it’s possible to see a link between the circumstances under which Lieberman is replacing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Lieberman’s insistence on adopting capital punishment.