The Knesset Ministerial Committee For Legislation is scheduled Sunday to discuss a bill submitted by Yisrael Beiteinu MK Sharon Gal allowing for the death penalty for terrorists convicted of murder. The bill, which is supported by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, seeks to put Israel on the list of countries that allow execution, along with China, North Korea and Iran. Supporters claim the bill is necessary in order to deter would-be terrorists and in light of the fact that Israel often releases terrorist before they’ve served full sentences.
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The death penalty is considered to be an inhumane and cruel punishment by the family of democratic nations, excluding some U.S. states. Israel does have a death penalty on the books, for Nazi war criminals, genocide, and treason, but with the exception of Adolf Eichmann, it has never been used.
There is no empirical evidence to support claims that the death penalty indeed serves as a deterrent or reduces crime, let alone terrorism. It’s not unreasonable to think that terrorists, who are already risking their lives to carry out attacks and also expose themselves to targeted killings, will fail to be deterred by the possibility of receiving a death sentence.
The claim that executing terrorists would end the practice of early release is especially troubling. The fact that the government is incapable of making rational decisions (according to the bill’s supporters) in negotiating for the release of kidnapped or captured Israelis is a shaky basis on which to justify the death penalty. Further, during the time it takes to convict, sentence, and carry out the death penalty, what is to stop terrorist groups from kidnapping soldiers or civilians and demanding the release of terrorists sentenced to death?
The bill also contains a puzzling guideline for military law in the territories. It states that the defense minister will “instruct” the military commander in the territories to issue an order that would prevent any mitigation of sentence, should the death penalty become legal. That contrasts with the current situation, in which the military commander can reduce sentences. Despite the fact that the Knesset is not the sovereign power in the West Bank, any punishment without the option of mitigation or leniency contradicts the basic principles of law and order.
A death sentence without the possibility of mitigation also violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which focuses on protecting civilians during times of war. Selectively enacting a draconian law such as this one on the Palestinian population under Israeli control is a discriminatory and outrageous act that would justifiably lead to harsh reactions from the international community. But most importantly, the message is that the death penalty cheapens human life and dignity. The Ministerial Committee must reject this unnecessary bill, which would be a stain on Israeli law.