Israel’s Proposed Death Penalty Legislation Targets Palestinians

The far-right Israeli government’s proposal to make it easier for judges to hand out the death penalty for “terrorist activity” has been condemned as “fascist” by Hadash MK Youssef Jabareen (Joint List) and rights groups, who fear it will give Israel legal cover to target Palestinians. A bill to amend existing legislation regulating the use of the death penalty passed its preliminary reading in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, on Wednesday, January 3, with backing from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Avigdor Liberman by Haaretz caricaturist Eran Volkovsky

Avigdor Liberman by Haaretz caricaturist Eran Volkovsky

Hadash MK Aida Touma-Suleiman (Joint List) told Al-Jazeera on Friday that while the bill does not specify any group, it is “intended mainly for the Palestinian people.” Touma-Suleiman continued: “For certain it’s not going to be implemented against Jews who commit terrorist attacks against Palestinians,” describing the bill’s authors as “extreme right.” “This is a fascist bill, contributing to an atmosphere of fascism inside Israeli society, which is directed towards Palestinians,” she said

Under existing laws, Israel’s civilian courts reserve the use of the death penalty for Nazis and Nazi collaborators convicted of committing murder during the Holocaust, while military courts can hand out the sentence if a panel of three judges unanimously agrees to issue the punishment.

The proposed changes will add an additional clause to Israel’s penal law, allowing the death penalty to be used against those convicted of “terrorist activity,” which is defined by the bill as “a deliberate attempt to murder civilians in order to achieve political, national, religious or ideological objectives.” It will remove the requirement for military court panels to unanimously agree on issuing the punishment, instead requiring a simple majority of two of the three judges.

From the Palestinian rights group Addameer which advocates for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, Dawoud Yusef cast doubt on Netanyahu’s assertion that the move would also apply to Jews.  “What we’ve seen in the past is that Avigdor Liberman pushed for this as part of his agreement to join Netanyahu’s coalition,” Yusef said, referencing Netanyahu’s defense minister and far-right coalition partner. “He’s come out and said that this will only apply to Arabs. When he says Arabs, we assume he means Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Liberman, whose party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) put forward the bill, has in the past advocated the use of the death penalty against “Arab terror” and in a Facebook post about the bill on Wednesday, the minister declared: “Jewish blood is not cheap.” Yusef said if the bill ends up passing, it would represent a “slippery slope”. “We really see this as a pandering to the extreme elements in the Israeli government and we’re not sure in the current climate, where that’s going to end.”

Maha Abdullah, from the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq, told Al Jazeera it would further compound Israel’s hold over the occupied territories. “It should be noted that most Palestinian political detainees are tried by Israeli military courts,” she said. “Given Israel’s position as occupying power, its biased judicial system against Palestinians, and legal precedents over the years, such a bill can only be read as targeting Palestinians who Israel characterizes as terrorists, a term whose definition in Israel is so broad and encompassing.”