The Israeli Knesset moves to adopt the death penalty for Palestinian resistance

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  March 6, 2023

The Israeli Knesset is moving toward legalizing a policy that has long existed in practice: the death penalty for Palestinians who resist.

On Wednesday, March 1, the Israeli Knesset Plenum approved a preliminary reading of a new bill to enforce the death penalty on Palestinian prisoners convicted of “terrorism.”

In a vote of 55 to 9, the bill, supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was pushed by MK Limon Sonn Har Melech of the Otzma Yehudit party and sponsored with another similar bill by MK Oded Forer from the right-wing party of Yisrael Beiteinu as an attachment.

The bill stipulates that the death sentence should be enforced on those who “intentionally, or out of indifference, causes the death of an Israeli citizen when the act is carried out from a racist motive or hate to a certain public… and with the purpose of harming the State of Israel and the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland.”

During the presentation of the preliminary reading on Wednesday, MK Har Melech explained that this bill “has come after decades of disgraced national pride and thousands of people murdered, until the nation of Israel cried out: Enough.”

An explanatory note to the bill clarified that there would also be a crackdown on prisons with so-called “all-inclusive conditions.”

The latest push by Israeli policy-makers comes as part of a recent Israeli onslaught on Palestinian political detainees, especially following the Freedom Tunnel escape of 2021, where six Palestinian detainees broke themselves out of the notorious maximum security Gilboa Prison.

The institutional expression of ‘Death to Arabs’

The stated purpose of the bill is to “nip terrorism in the bud and create a weighty deterrent,” as explained by the preliminary reading’s explanatory note.

During the Knesset’s meeting on March 1, Israeli Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, expressed support for the bill, stipulating that the “law will not eradicate terror entirely, but this punishment is morally justified.”

A number of international institutions and governments responded to the recent bill with derision, challenging the reasoning that such a bill would deter Palestinian action. 

The spokesperson for the EU’s foreign affairs, Peter Santo, told The Times of Israel that the bill represents “a cruel and inhumane punishment, which represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity, and fails to act as a deterrent to crime,” while the German government has released statements suggesting that relations with Israel will be negatively impacted should the bill pass.

Human rights groups, UN experts, and legal representatives have called for pressuring Israel to forfeit its adoption of the death penalty, emphasizing that the nature of the bill targets Palestinians exclusively and by design.

While the push for the bill represents a new development, it is the institutional expression of a de facto policy that has already existed for years, especially with the resurgence of extrajudicial executions of Palestinians throughout Operation Break the Wave in 2022, and well before it. These killings are described as field executions or “liquidations” because they are often carried out when Palestinians pose little or no threat to the Israeli army and are, in fact, targeted as a form of deterrence. 

During the Unity Uprising of 2021, Palestinians from across Palestine faced the revived ferocity of settler violence amid a protracted system of impunity. Israeli settler mobs were publicly rallying for the death of Palestinians. 

Mavet La-Aravim” (Hebrew for “death to Arabs,”) became a common echo in Jerusalem against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship

This is also nothing new. In 2014, Israeli settlers rallied with the same slogan. In Jerusalem, the slogan was translated into action after settlers kidnapped 14-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir and burned him alive.

The intensity of incitement against Palestinians was especially potent for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

In launching Operation Break the Wave last year, this campaign of settler incitement and attack morphed into a fully-fledged military campaign, and 2022 quickly became the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem since the UN began documenting Palestinian fatalities there in 2005. 

Contextualizing the death penalty bill

It is a fundamental international principle that when occupying states hold political detainees as prisoners during military conflict, those prisoners retain basic human rights while they remain in custody. 

“No prisoner shall be subjected to, and all prisoners shall be protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the Standard Minimum Rules of Treatment of Prisoners emphasize. The article continues that “no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification.”

By sanctioning the judicial execution of those persons, the bill constitutes an infringement on their most basic rights.

But the violation of detainee rights is also nothing new, and the Palestinian prisoners’ movement has mobilized over the decades to combat it, feeding into the general rise of Palestinian resistance. 

“Making the terrorists’ conditions worse is necessary both to create deterrence and to fulfill our moral duty to terror victims and their families.” – Gilad Erdan, former Public Security Minister, currently serving as Israel’s representative to the UN

The last time the Israeli Knesset attempted to push for a death penalty was in 2018. At the time, then Israeli Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, had called for the conditions of Palestinian political detainees to be reduced to the bare minimum. The bill passed a preliminary reading with a vote of 52 in favor and 49 opposed.

In a 2019 press conference, the Minister proclaimed that “the party is over,” and that Israeli prison standards would be lowered to “deter terrorism.” 

In February, the Knesset approved a preliminary reading of a bill which denies Palestinian detainees medical treatment.

Less than three weeks after Erdan’s greenlighting the repression of prisoners by the Israeli Prison Services in January 2019, Israeli forces raided Ofer prison and injured more than 100 detainees, while burning three prison cells. 

Now serving as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Erdan claims that detainees will return to “terrorism” after their release, and so “making the terrorists’ conditions worse is necessary both to create deterrence and to fulfill our moral duty to terror victims and their families.”

In other words, Erdan essentially calls for Palestinian detainees to receive punitive treatment for any actions they may make after release.

In response to the intensified attacks against detainees in the last five years, prisoners have called for a state of emergency and a state of mass disobedience inside prisons, including hunger strikes, the burning of prison rooms, and refusing to stand during count or go to the military court hearings. 

Just this February, the Israeli Knesset approved a preliminary reading of a bill that denies Palestinian detainees medical treatment, legalizing the slow killing of Palestinian detainees through medical negligence. 

“The occupation authorities continue to ignore everything that has been approved by the international system, without any concern,” the director of the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, Qaddura Fares, said in response to the bill against medical treatment. 

“And in light of the international silence,” Fares continued, “the occupation authorities will continue to invent racist legislations and laws, which appear at first glance to only affect Palestinians, but which in reality affect all of humanity.”

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss