Israel's Security Cabinet to Discuss Bill That Would Allow Death Penalty for Terrorists

The legislation, promoted by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Lieberman, is facing sweeping professional objections from the security services

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, March 19, 2017.
Chaim Bornstein

The security cabinet is scheduled this week to consider a bill that would permit the death penalty for terrorists. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are promoting the bill, though the prime minister is less enthusiastic about it. The legislation is facing sweeping professional objections from the security services, however, making it doubtful that the bill will be passed.

Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, have long supported the death penalty for terrorists, particularly in cases in which civilians are murdered. In early January, the Knesset gave its preliminary support for a bill sponsored by Knesset member Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu) that would no longer require the unanimous support of three–judge military court panels in the territories to sentence a terrorist to death. A regular majority of two would suffice. The bill would also eliminate the authority of the commander of the Israeli army’s Central Command to overturn a death sentence.

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The defense minister expressed support for the death penalty last month following the sentencing of Omar al-Abed for the stabbing deaths of three members of the Salomon family — a father, Yosef, his son Elad and his daughter, Chaya – and the wounding of Yosef’s wife, Tova, in the West Bank settlement of Halamish last July. Two members of an Ofer Military Court panel sentenced Abed to four life sentences, but a dissenting judge, Lt. Col. Dov Gilboa, said the only appropriate punishment was death.

Lieberman issued a statement of support for Gilboa’s position. For his part, in the course of a condolence visit to the Salomon family, Netanyahu said he supported the death penalty for terrorists. Speaking in the Knesset session during which the bill received preliminary support, Netanyahu said: “We are not doing this [supporting the bill] absentmindedly, but [because] there is basic justice in extreme situations. Anyone who slaughters and laughs will not live out his days in prison.”

At the suggestion of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Netanyahu decided to hold an in-depth discussion with the security cabinet on the implications of imposing the death penalty. The debate, which has been delayed for some time, is due to take place next week. Despite Lieberman’s position, the professionals in the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service have long objected to the death penalty for terrorists. There are several reasons for this.

For one, the security services fear that the death penalty would transform executed prisoners into popular heroes among the Palestinians, more than occurs currently with those in prison or who are killed in gun battles. Moreover, there is concern that terrorist groups will intensify their efforts to kidnap people whom they would use as hostages in an effort to obtain the release of terrorists sentenced to death, as well as concern that other Palestinians would seek to emulate the actions of terrorists sentenced to death. Such views were expressed at several meetings attended by senior political and security officials.

Given the broad opposition among the security services, it’s doubtful the bill will ever pass. Nevertheless, one can assume that cabinet members and Knesset members on the right will continue to raise the issue because the public supports it, particularly for perpetrators of attacks in which civilians are killed.