The Gallows Really Befit Israel, or So the Death Penalty Bill Makes It Seem

The government wants to convince us that the scaffold is the only solution for the terror plaguing the country

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Ofer prison.Credit: Oren Ziv
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The next patriotism test has already been placed on the table. The death-penalty-for-terrorists bill being advanced by Avigdor Lieberman has already passed the prime minister’s test, and now it’s about to receive the stamp of approval from the morality commissar, Moshe Kahlon. The emphasis in the Haaretz article – “Kahlon has consented to advancing the move” – shows that the finance minister is still perceived as the guardian tasked with protecting the government from plunging even deeper into the putrid morass. If Kahlon supports the bill, it must be ethical.

Now all that’s left is to present the bill to Zionist Union chief Avi Gabbay, who has made it a profession to collect medals for patriotism so that his name might be added to the national consensus. And how could you possibly object to the death penalty for terrorists? What punishment could be more Jewish than “an eye for an eye”?

The bill isn’t about any momentous change. It’s largely about appearances. The death penalty is already on the books, but it requires the unanimous agreement of the panel of judges, while the new bill would suffice with an ordinary majority. This will, of course, improve things significantly for fans of the noose.

But before the judges may be called on to join hands and open the scaffold’s trapdoor together, the prosecution, which up to now hasn’t sought the death penalty, will have to change its policy. This means the military and civilian prosecutors will maintain the gallows, the attorney general will give the signal, and the ministers and Knesset members will be able to keep their hands clean as they tout their huge contribution to national security.

But then they’ll find to their dismay that their celebration was premature. Because how can the death penalty deter someone whose goal from the outset is to get to Paradise? When he sets out to commit an attack, he’s ready to meet death. He knows that his home or his parents’ home will be demolished, and all other deterrent measures have already been tried on him – life imprisonment or exile or stray bullets (or bullets carefully aimed at the legs) that somehow find their way to the head.

To him, it makes no difference whether he’s executed in accordance with the criminal code of a country he does not recognize, or if he’s killed at the decision of a soldier. If the country’s laws and deterrent measures against him were effective, the jails would be empty. He’s not a regular killer, he sees himself as a fighter with a cause, a soldier in the service of his people whose slogan is “a thousand martyrs are marching on Jerusalem.” He’s ready to die on the battlefield, whether that’s on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv or in the military courtroom at Ofer Prison.

Turkey has already learned that executions do not prevent terror. In 2004, it annulled the death penalty. Saudi Arabia and Iran execute hundreds of people every year, and the list doesn’t get any shorter as a result. In an earlier age, the British also came to see that executing Israel’s freedom fighters didn’t act as a deterrent, and the Jewish state came into being despite the gallows whose victims became national heroes.

In Israel’s war against terrorists, executions aren’t about punishment or deterrence, they’re about revenge. But Israel has plenty of other ways to appease the mob roaring “death to terrorists.” It can impose a blockade on 2 million people in Gaza, it can wall off villages, rouse people from their beds and homes in the middle of the night, detain people without trial for years, freeze bodies and keep them from burial, and kill “when necessary” and when not necessary.

The death-penalty bill, if it passes, will at most be a chilling and hollow declaration of “national responsibility” by a lying government and Knesset that want to convince us that only the scaffold – this time adorned in judges’ robes – will provide a solution to terrorism. And if not, well at least we tried.

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