A death penalty for terrorists would be terrible for Israel

Not only would the death penalty have no deterrent effect on bona fide terrorists. It’s just plain wrong.

Police investigators stand around the body of a Palestinian man who ran over a group of Israeli pedestrians in Jerusalem, November 5, 2014. Police shot and killed the man shortly after the attack. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Police investigators stand around the body of a Palestinian man who ran over a group of Israeli pedestrians in Jerusalem, November 5, 2014. Police shot and killed the man shortly after the attack. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Update: On Sunday afternoon, Haaretz reports that the Prime Minister postponed the ministerial debate on the death penalty bill for three months – most likely a delaying tactic. He also instructed the formation of a government committee to look into the issue. The bill’s sponsor responded that delaying the debate over the death penalty is proof that Likud isn’t truly part of the “national” camp. Israel’s Justice Minister supports of the bill.

A ministerial committee was expected to decide whether or not Israel’s governing coalition will support a bill allowing the death penalty for terrorists on Sunday. Israel Beitenu, Avigdor Liberman’s party, says that the bill applies to people convicted of “murder in terrorist circumstances,” including in the West Bank. 

The bill fulfills a campaign promise by Liberman’s “Israel Beitenu” party. The current version of the draft law was sponsored by his neophyte legislator Sharon Gal.

The death penalty proposal is only the latest in a long-running tactic of Liberman’s: float outrageous ideas during the campaign season to rally his far-right base and then try and turn them into policies and legislation after the elections. The first example was “no loyalty, no citizenship,” which appeared during the 2009 campaign – a direct attack on Arab citizens. That was eventually translated into a series of bills designed to harangue them, sponsored or co-sponsored by Liberman’s legislators. Some of them passed. We should have known his “death penalty for terrorists” slogan was no stunt either.

Haaretz ticks off some of the obvious and well-known reasons why the law is ill-conceived: research has shown that the death penalty has little deterrent effect, especially when the potential perpetrator is ideologically motivated to commit, for example, a suicide attack. The Western world has largely disavowed the death penalty, with the exception of the U.S. (and I want to believe that even there it is fated to go the way of bans on gay marriage). Further, Israel’s attorney general is set to oppose the draft law, reports Haaretz, such that even if the committee approves the bill as expected, it will face hurdles.

But stranger things have happened and the consequences of this bill actually passing one day must be considered. Those consequences will be terrible – for Israel.

First, it’s worth reiterating why it will have zero impact on terrorism against Israeli citizens. It’s not only suicide bombers who are willing to die. Lately, there have been more and more low-grade incidents such as stabbings, vehicle attacks and stone-throwing that end with the attacker being killed on the spot, rather than apprehending or incapacitating the suspect. The minister in charge of police in the previous government, a member of Liberman’s party, even gave what many perceived as a green light to police to kill terrorism suspects on the spot last year. Palestinians have no illusions about the fact that even demonstrating carries risk of death.

Anyone plotting a genuine terror attack, even if it is not a suicide bombing, can reasonably count on being killed on the spot. The abstract notion of some lengthy legal process that might drag on for years will be so remote as to deter no one.

The main impact, then, will be on Israel’s own society. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the recent elections by conflating leftists with ISIS. In this pithy ad, the key words (and among the only words) are “my brother” – used by the ISIS member to greet the Israeli left-winger. Commentators have long accused human rights organizations in Israel of supporting, or being supported by, terrorists. It has become such a routine accusation that many Israelis now take it for granted.

With such relentless incitement, a law stipulating death penalty for terrorists would surely ratchet up the expectation of punishment for “the Left,” even in its broadest definition (the ad just showed regular people, not activists, as the Left). The same expectation will legitimize increasingly severe limitations on the activity of left-wing organizations beyond the NGO bill.

Then consider Israel’s fetish over its image: hasbara. Play out a scenario in which Israel actually captures a terrorist alive, puts him or her on trial, sentences the perpetrator to death and all appeals are rejected. Imagine the global images that will be flashed over the newswires as Israel takes a person whose life was spent being harassed by the IDF, waiting at checkpoints, locked into a tiny geographic region, maybe jailed as a minor, lost brothers or parents to the conflict, and executes him through lethal injection. Go message that.

These are reasons why the bill is bad for Israel. It is the language that Israel’s automatic defenders must try and understand. But what if I were to say that it is unjust for the perpetrators? That all over the Western world, society has decided that death is an unacceptable, immoral response even to heinous crimes; that even I as a feminist do not support death penalty for rapists and murderers?

The right wing will say I care more about Palestinians than about Jews. They will assume that a moral argument for Palestinians taints or trumps any arguments about Israel and reveals my true pro-Palestinian bias. Sadly, they’re wrong. The law simply has multi-directional ways of being awful.

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