With 'Death for Terrorists' Bill, Israel Risks Joining a Very Dubious Club

Space will not suffice to enumerate all the arguments against the death penalty, now that bill calling for the death penalty for terrorists has been resurrected.

Haaretz Editorial
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Joe Kebartas holds a sign reading "Death Penalty is Murder" outside the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Massachusetts, March 4, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Haaretz Editorial

The bill calling for the death penalty for terrorists has suddenly been resurrected and is coming up for debate on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The main reasons for this are the need to deter terrorists and the fact that Israel releases terrorists before their full prison term is up.

Space will not suffice to enumerate all the arguments against the death penalty. But it is important to make clear that comparative studies among states in the United States, and research that compares the situation before and after the death penalty was instituted or abolished, have not been able to prove that it is in any way a deterrent that prevents murders, certainly not murders committed by terrorists. The latter know that they are risking their lives during or after their actions, so the claim that the death penalty deters them insults our intelligence. That is also one of the reasons why, with the exception of the United States, the death penalty does not exist in any democratic country.

Are the supporters of the bill seriously proposing that because the government of Israel is unable to make rational decisions about negotiating with terrorist organizations over the release of prisoners, it will decide to execute people? And would this solve the problem, or just exacerbate it? After all, a murder trial with a death penalty will be a lengthy one, and during that time terrorist groups will be especially motivated to abduct soldiers or civilians to demand the release of the indicted or condemned individual.

If Israel insists on executing that individual, will it not be condemning to death the next Israeli to be abducted by a terror group? It is worth recalling the incident of the British sergeants, who were held by the pre-state underground force Etzel and were killed after Jewish prisoners were executed — after which no more underground prisoners were executed.

But the main argument against the death penalty has nothing to do with the question of efficacy or deterrence but rather, the heinousness of intentional killing, in cold blood, by the state. This is an inhuman punishment, which leads to contempt for the value of human life and human dignity. It should also be remembered that the death penalty is irreversible, and no system is infallible. The State of Israel must not slip down the slope of populism and hunger for revenge, joining the dubious club of death-penalty countries like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran.