Fifty-seven years ago, Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi SS leader and the “architect” of the Holocaust was sentenced to death by the Jerusalem District Court. He was convicted on 15 counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against the Jewish people. Some six months later, on June 1, 1962, he was hanged after exhausting all avenues for appeal.
Although the Israeli state inherited the British Mandate penal code, which included the death penalty for several offences; in 1954, the Knesset voted to abolish it in all cases except for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. As result of this decision, to this day, 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 hand out the sentence only if a panel of three judges unanimously agrees to issue the punishment. Eichmann has thus been the only person to have been sentenced to death in Israel – a punishment that was widely supported because of the SS leader’s heinous role in the Holocaust. Indeed, writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial, described Eichmann as the embodiment of the “banality of evil“.
For a long time in Israel, the current arrangement, which allowed the death penalty to be invoked only in extreme circumstances and with the unanimous approval of a three-judge panel, was accepted by most. Yet more recently, a pro-capital punishment camp has emerged, calling for its use against Palestinian prisoners.
The political might behind this pro-death penalty movement is former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman‘s Yisrael Beitenu, a small but influential right-wing outfit which brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s fragile coalition government to the brink of collapse after pulling its support over the recent Gaza ceasefire. They have put forward a bill that would make the death penalty a common punishment for what they call “Palestinian terrorists”. Earlier this year, Netanyahu stated that he would be supporting the bill, saying that “there are extreme cases of people who carry out horrifying crimes, who do not deserve to live. They should feel the full brunt of the law.”
The bill, an amendment to the existing legislation, passed its first hearing earlier this year in January. It is currently under judicial review in the Knesset, and will then have to go through a second and third hearing before it will be passed into law. While Yisrael Beitenu’s decision to leave the ruling coalition in November appears to have slowed down the bill’s progression, with support from Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, the bill still has a good chance of passing.
If the bill becomes law, it would allow the Israeli military court in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) to sentence those convicted of terrorism charges to death, only with the approval of a simple majority from the panel of judges. In other words, this amendment will not only give a green light to the military prosecution to demand the use of the death penalty, it will also normalise its use outside of exceptional circumstances.
Liberman and other proponents of the bill describe it as a deterrent against those wanting to commit “terrorist” attacks. Yet in reality, this bill is an attack on Palestinian political prisoners and an attempt to crush those resisting occupation.
What is particularly disturbing is that it is essentially comparing the crimes of the Nazi with Palestinians who have been arrested and accused of terrorism in the illegal Israeli military court system. This is an illegal court system which should not be operating in West Bank at all according to international law. Director of the Palestinian Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association (Addameer) Sahar Francis explains, the occupying power is not supposed to interfere in legal issues within occupied territory and the Knesset is certainly not allowed to issue new laws in occupied territory. In addition to being illegal, the military court system is often cited as a kangaroo court that does not allow for due legal process with a 99.9 percent conviction rate. It also frequently tries and sentences children – at least 8000 since the year 2000.
In this context, it is alarming that Israel is now discussing to give its military courts the power to sentence Palestinian prisoners to death, but it is not surprising. The Israeli colonial regime is making use of the global rise of right-wing politics and fascism, where such draconian policies are justified and encouraged.
Indeed, Israel has sentenced Palestinians to death in multiple ways prior to this, from extrajudicial executions, siege, starvation and bombing campaigns. This is simply one more effort, an effort which should be rejected by all who adhere to basic principles of human rights.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.