Opinion |

Death Penalty in Israel Will Bring Occupation to the Center of World Attention

No matter how you look at it, the death penalty is barbaric and stupid and has been abolished in all civilized countries except for certain states in the United States (which are difficult to call civilized)

Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery
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Florida prison execution chamber.
Florida prison chamber for lethal injection. Credit: Florida Dept. of Corrections / Doug Smith
Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery

The whole world tensely followed developments as the days went by, then the hours and then the minutes. The world watched the condemned man, a resident of Qalqilyah, as he awaited his execution. He had been convicted of an act of terror. He bought a knife and murdered four members of a family in a nearby settlement. He acted alone in a fit of rage after his beloved cousin was shot and killed during a demonstration.

This is an imaginary case. But it is very close to what might happen in a real case now ongoing.

There is no capital punishment in Israel. It was abolished in the first years of the state, with the memory of the execution of the underground (terrorists as the British called them) still fresh.

That was a moment of celebration, an uplifting one, and right after the vote all the members of the Knesset came to their feet. On that day I was proud of my country, the country for which I had shed my blood.

Two people have been executed in Israel. One was a Jerusalem engineer by the name of Meir Tobianski, who was shot to death in the first days of independence. He was accused of passing on secret information to the British, who passed it on to the Arabs. Shortly thereafter it turned out he was innocent. The second time the death penalty was imposed was on Adolf Eichmann.

A personal confession: I cant even kill a cockroach. Not even a fly. Thats not a conscious decision, its almost physical. I wasnt always like that. Around my 15th birthday I joined a terrorist organization – Etzel. At that time Etzel placed bombs in Arab markets and killed women and children in revenge for similar actions by the Arabs. I was too young to take part myself in those operations, but my friends and I distributed leaflets in city squares that proudly announced them. So I was at least a partner to those actions, until I left Etzel because of my increasing opposition to terrorism.

But the real change came later, when I was injured in the 1948 war. For a few days I lay in my hospital bed without being able to eat, drink or sleep. I could only think. The result was my inability to hurt any living thing, including human beings.

I welcomed the Knesset decision to abolish the death penalty with all my heart.

But a few days ago, somebody remembered that the death penalty had not been totally abolished. An obscure clause in the military code of justice has left it on the books. Now there is a call to activate it. The terrorist who murdered three members of a family in Halamish was injured but not killed on the spot, as almost always happens. And the whole right-wing lot in the government burst out in a chorus of demands to implement capital punishment. Benjamin Netanyahu joined in as well.

Rational analysis shows that imposing the death penalty is a huge mistake. Executing a person whose people see him as a patriot causes anger and hunger for revenge. For every person who is executed, 10 others come to take his place.

Im speaking from experience. I joined Etzel a few weeks after the British hanged a young Jewish man, Shlomo Ben-Yosef, who had fired on an Arab bus full of women and children, but hit no one. He was the first Jew to be executed during the British Mandate. Years later, when I had already become an opponent of terrorism, I was infuriated every time the British hanged another Jewish terrorist.

Another argument against the death penalty is what I described above: the dramatic impact inherent in it. From the moment the verdict is delivered, the entire world – and of course the entire country – becomes part of the event. From Tel Aviv to Timbuktu, from Paris to Pretoria, millions of people wake up who have no interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but whose lives have been burst into by the condemned man.

Israeli embassies will be flooded with messages from good people; human rights groups in every country will intervene. Protests will take place in many cities and they will grow from week to week. The occupation of the Palestinian territories, which until then had been a small issue in media outlets, will become the center of world attention. Editors will dispatch reporters, commentators will fill pages. A few heads of state will approach Israels president and ask for clemency.

The closer the execution date comes, the greater the pressure will be. Calls will increase worldwide to boycott Israel. Israeli diplomats will send emergency messages to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. The embassies will increase protective measures. The Israeli government will hold emergency meetings. Some ministers will recommend reducing the punishment. Others will argue that this will show weakness and encourage terror. Netanyahu, as always, will waver among all the opinions.

How will the condemned man be executed? Hanging? Decapitation? And if decapitation, by hand or guillotine? Shooting? Lethal injection? Electrocution? And who will carry out the execution? Will someone be hired? A volunteer? A firing squad?

I know that this argument might lead to the conclusion that attackers should be killed on the spot. That is indeed the second focus of the arguments that are now tearing Israel apart. Elor Azaria, a soldier and combat medic, shot an Arab assailant in the head as he lay bleeding on the ground. A military court sentenced him to 18 months in prison and confirmed this sentence on appeal. Many believe he should be released. Others, among them Netanyahu, call for him to be pardoned.

No matter how you look at it, the death penalty is barbaric and stupid and has been abolished in all civilized countries except for certain states in the United States (which are difficult to call civilized). When I think about this issue, I always remember heartrending lines by Oscar Wilde in his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde was imprisoned there, and seeing a man condemned to death he wrote:

I never saw a man who looked / With such a wistful eye / Upon that little tent of blue / Which prisoners call the sky ...

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