Why is Israel suddenly enthusiastic to pass the death penalty law when it has been carrying extrajudicial executions of Palestinian activists for decades without remorse and accountability?
The answer does not lie in Israel’s perception of what Palestinians have done to deserve such horrific fates, but in Israel’s own shady politics.
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has reigned supreme for many years, is finally finding himself in a corner.
The once unchallenged Israeli leader is now trapped between the growing criticism of emboldened right-wing politicians of his own party and multiple police investigations of a massive corruption racket operated by his circle of aides and allies.
Israel’s logic dictates that when the going gets tough, it is time to lash out against Palestinians and the perfect stage for Israeli political theater is the merciless bombing of Gaza.
On November 12, an Israeli force infiltrated the besieged Gaza Strip, killing seven Palestinians, including, Nour Baraka, a well-known Gaza leader, all with no needed judicial order and definitely no legal ramifications thereof.
As Netanyahu’s coalition grew bolder and more unhinged, the Israeli Prime Minister joined the chorus. It is time “to wipe the smile off the terrorist’s face,” he said in July 2017Ramzy Baroud
The attack, coupled with dozens of airstrikes, resulted in untold destruction and prompted a Palestinian response.
It is abundantly clear that such a surge of activities, backed by Netanyahu himself in the Israeli Knesset, make it easier for Israeli courts to issue death sentences against Palestinians accused of carrying out ‘terrorist’ acts.
The reasoning, however, lies in Israel’s own political rivalry.
The death penalty bill was the rally cry for the Israel Beiteinu party led by ultra-nationalist Israeli politician and current Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, during its 2015 election campaign.
When Lieberman attempted to push the bill in the Israeli Knesset soon after the forming of the current coalition government in July 2015, the draft was resoundingly defeated 94 to six, with Netanyahu himself opposing it.
Since then, the political mood in Israel has shifted in ways that have obliged Netanyahu to concede to the demands of the even more hawkish politicians within his own government.
As Netanyahu’s coalition grew bolder and more unhinged, the Israeli Prime Minister joined the chorus. It is time “to wipe the smile off the terrorist’s face,” he said in July 2017, while visiting the illegal Jewish settlement of Halamish, following the killing of three settlers.
At the time, he called for the death penalty in “severe cases.”
Ultimately, Netanyahu’s position on the issue evolved into that of Lieberman who made the ‘death penalty’ one of his main conditions for joining Netanyahu’s coalition.
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Last January, the Israel Beiteinu’s proposed bill passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset. Months later, on November 4, the first reading of the bill was approved by Israeli legislators, with the support of Netanyahu himself.
This reality reflects the competing currents in Israeli politics, where the long-reigning Israeli Prime Minister is increasingly embattled by accusations from within and outside of his coalition, of being too weak in his handling of the Gaza resistance.
Even the likes of former Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, is attempting to resurrect his failed career as a politician by comparing his past violence against Palestinians with the supposedly weaker Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is “weak”, “afraid” and is unable to take decisive steps to rein in Gaza, “therefore he should go home,” Barak recently said during an interview with Israeli TV Channel 10.
Comparing his supposed heroism with Netanyahu’s ‘surrender’ to Palestinian Resistance, Barak bragged about killing “more than 300 Hamas members (in) three and a half minutes,” when he was the country’s Defense Minister.
Barak’s sinister statement was made with reference to the killing of hundreds of Gazans, including women, children and newly graduated police cadets in Gaza on December 27, 2008. That was the beginning of a war that killed and wounded thousands of Palestinians and set the stage for more equally lethal wars that followed.
When such ominous comments are made by a person considered in Israel’s political lexicon as a ‘dove’, one can only imagine the vengeful political discourse championed by Netanyahu and his extremist coalition.
A case in point
The bill, once enshrined in Israeli law, will be applied to Palestinians only because, in Israel, the term ‘terrorism’ almost always applies to Palestinian Arabs, and practically never to Israeli Jews.
Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and one of a few Arab members of the Knesset, like most Palestinians, understands the intentions of the bill.
The law is “intended mainly for the Palestinian people,” she told reporters last January. “It’s not going to be implemented against Jews who commit terrorist attacks against Palestinians, for sure,” as the bill is drafted and championed by the country’s “extreme right.”
Moreover, the Death Penalty bill must be understood in the larger context of the growing racism and chauvinism in Israel, and the undermining of whatever feeble claim to democracy that Israel possessed, until recently.
On July 19 of this year, the Israeli government approved the Jewish ‘Nation-state Law’ which designates Israel as the ‘nation state of the Jewish people’, while openly denigrating the Palestinian Arab citizens of the state, their culture, language and identity.
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As many have feared, Israel’s racist self-definition is now inspiring a host of new laws that would further target and marginalize the country’s native Palestinian inhabitants.
The Death Penalty law would be the last straw in this horrific and unchallenged Israeli agenda that transcends party lines and unites most of the country’s Jewish citizens and politicians in an ongoing hate-fest.
Once the Israeli bill becomes law, it will change little in terms of the bloody dynamics that govern Israel’s behavior.
However, executing Palestinians for resisting Israel’s violent occupation will further highlight the growing extremism in Israeli society and the increasing vulnerability of Palestinians.
As with the ‘nation-state law’, the death penalty bill targeting Palestinians exposes Israel’s racist nature and complete disregard for international law, which is a painful reality that should be urgently and openly challenged by the international community.
No government, not even Israel, should be allowed to embrace racism and violate human rights so brazenly and without a minimum degree of accountability.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.