A national security committee hearing in the Israeli Parliament spiraled out of control this week as family members of hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 squared off with the most far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. The uproar was caused by a bill that the coalition’s right-wing members have long sought to pass that would make it easier for Israel to execute Palestinians on Israeli soil.
The resurrection of the death penalty is a long-standing goal of Israel’s far-right politicians past and present, whose efforts intensified at the beginning of this year with the introduction of a bill that would mandate the death penalty for Palestinians found guilty of terrorism in Israeli courts.
The bill, which garnered preliminary approval from Netanyahu’s government, defines terrorism as “the purpose of harming the State of Israel and the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland,” suggesting it will be applied largely toward Palestinians committing terrorism against Israelis, and not the other way around. While existing law already sanctions state executions, the proposed legislation would make the death penalty mandatory in some cases, and it would also remove safeguards preventing executions being handed down by military tribunals that oversee the administration of laws in the occupied West Bank.
In the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, right-wing Israeli politicians have trumpeted the bill as a means to execute the Palestinians detained for their role in the assault and to enshrine Israel’s right to execute people who carry out future attacks. At the same time, family members of the hostages taken from southern Israeli kibbutzim have condemned the move as political theater, intended solely to score political points while simultaneously enraging the Hamas militants who control the hostages’ fate. The debate over the bill came amid Israeli negotiations with Hamas over the release of captives in Gaza in exchange for Palestinians who are imprisoned in Israel; the two sides reached a deal, which includes a temporary ceasefire, on Wednesday.
Given the expansive definition of terrorism adopted by Israeli politicians and military commanders, the bill could have far-reaching consequences. Israel has wielded terrorism as justification for wide-ranging suppression campaigns, including the branding of some half-dozen Palestinian civil society organizations “terrorists” despite repeated failures to demonstrate any basis for their accusations.
“This is another political escalation toward death, violence, and chaos by the far-right Israeli government,” Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at the human rights organization DAWN, told The Intercept. “They have sentenced thousands of Palestinians to death in Gaza with no due process by dropping bombs on their homes. They have killed hundreds in the West Bank with no due process by gunning them down in the streets. Now they will add more ways to kill Palestinians, once again, without real due process.”
IN MARCH, the Knesset approved a preliminary version of the bill, which requires three more rounds of voting before it can pass into law. On Monday, the national security committee took up the bill for a hearing, and was met with furious opposition by families who claimed the bill would only endanger the lives of their family members held hostage by Hamas. During the hearing, screaming matches erupted between politicians and aggrieved families.
Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat was taken captive by Hamas, pleaded in the committee to halt the bill. “I asked you already last week and I begged you to stop. I begged you not to make any kind of hay out of us or our suffering,” Dickmann said, according to reporting in the Times of Israel.
“Please do not have a hearing now on the gallows, please do not have a hearing now on the death penalty. Not when the lives of our loved ones are in the balance, not when the sword is on their necks. I am here in the name of Carmel and for her to remain alive. Please, choose life and ensure they come home alive and whole.”
After the hearing, Itamar-Ben Gvir, the far-right politician who leads the Jewish Power party, hugged Dickman in a photo-op intended to depict his support for the families. In response, Dickmann wrote online:
“I told you: Don’t hug me but you hugged [me] anyway. I told you: Don’t endanger our beloved ones but you endangered them anyway. All for a picture. Itamar Ben Gvir, you have no boundaries. Everyone sees that you’re making a circus out of the blood of our families. It’s not too late. Stop.”
Yarden Gonen, whose sister was being held in Gaza, told Knesset members that they were “playing along with [the] mind games” of Hamas,” The Guardian reported. “And in return we would get pictures of our loved ones murdered, ended, with the state of Israel and not them [Hamas] being blamed for it. … Don’t pursue this until after they are back here,” she said. “Don’t put my sister’s blood on your hands.”
The proposed legislation would remove an existing requirement that only a three-person panel composed of officials with the rank of lieutenant colonel can hand down a death sentence. Allowing more junior military personnel to hand down such sentences has the potential of putting the determination of who lives and who dies in the hands of more radicalized soldiers. Within the Israeli military, political radicalization tends to follow an inverse relationship with military rank — a dynamic not dissimilar to that of the U.S. military.
The law would also take away the military chief of staff’s power to commute death sentences, which has occurred multiple times in Israel’s short history. The death sentence has long existed in Israeli law as a punishment for war crimes, but it has not been seen through to completion since 1962, with the execution of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
Earlier this year, United Nations experts condemned the legislative push. Contrary to the justification provided by right-wing politicians claiming it will serve as a deterrent, the experts said, carrying out executions in the occupied territories will only fuel hostilities and detract from ongoing peace efforts.
For years, right-wing politicians like Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have made inflammatory comments about the death penalty, stoking the bloodlust driving their hyper radicalized base. In 2015, upon entering the Knesset, Smotrich — who now oversees parts of the vast Israeli security apparatus occupying the West Bank — told a news anchor that he was prepared to carry out state-sanctioned executions himself.
“I am willing to be the one who carries out that sentence. It will be difficult for me. It’s not easy. But if this is the right decision, if this is what’s right for the people of Israel and what’s right for the state of Israel, and it passes all the judicial proceedings, I am certainly prepared to be the one,” said Smotrich, amid an effort in the Knesset to pass an execution bill. “You’re ready to be the hangman?” the news anchor asked in disbelief. Smotrich replied, “I am prepared to be the one who carries out this suitable and just sentence.”
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