This isn’t the first time I’ve written this, and it won’t be the last unless something changes.
Marwan Barghouti is in the news again, calling for a hunger strike to “resist” the “abuse” of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. The New York Times also made news by publishing an op-ed by Barghouti with a note that he is a “Palestinian leader and parliamentarian,” but failing to include the fact that he was imprisoned after a conviction for five terrorist murders. He was accused of being involved in many more, but the state chose to prosecute him only for the ones for which the evidence was strongest. After all, five life sentences should be enough to keep him off the street, shouldn’t they?
Israelis can be excused for being skeptical. After all, 16 of them weren’t enough to keep Ahlam Tamimi, mastermind of the 2002 Sbarro Pizzaria bombing, behind bars (she was released in 2011 as part of the ransom for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit). Tamimi has a flourishing career as a broadcaster in Jordan, which has refused her extradition to the US (some of her victims were US citizens). Yet again in 2013 Israel agreed to release 104 prisoners, most of whom were convicted of murder, “in order to move toward renewed peace negotiations.” Some 78 were released before the doomed negotiations fell apart.
Although the Knesset passed a law in 2014 establishing a life sentence without possibility of parole in less than 40 years and without eligibility for release for diplomatic purposes, the pressure that can be placed on Israeli officials when a person, especially a young soldier, is in the hands of the enemy can be immense. In any case, the law doesn’t apply to terrorists already in prison, nor to military courts where many cases which occur in Judea and Samaria must be tried. I am not aware of any terrorist that has yet received this kind of sentence.
Barghouti and Tamimi are popular Palestinian heroes, because nothing makes a bigger Palestinian hero than killing Jews. There is agitation from the Israeli Left and foreign circles to release Barghouti, who is considered a possible “moderate” Palestinian political leader and even (and this is insane) “the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.”
The only thing Barghouti shares with Mandela is the fact that he is in prison, something that could also be said of Charles Manson, and nobody calls him the American Mandela. But I could easily imagine circumstances under which Barghouti (unlike Manson) would be released.
There should be no question of releasing Barghouti and no need to try to extradite Tamimi. These options should have been foreclosed from the start. Both justice and our national interest demand that these murderers and others like them should be dead.
Let’s look at some of the reasons that Israel should implement a speedy and sure death penalty for terrorist murder.
- Fewer terrorists means less terror. As I’ve said above, life sentences are often cut short. Many of the prisoners who were released went back to terrorism, including some that murdered again. At least 6 Israelis have been killed since 2014 by prisoners who were released in the 2011 deal that freed Ahlam Tamimi. They would be alive today if their murderers had received the death penalty. Laws to limit prisoner exchanges are unlikely to be enforced when the next soldier or child is kidnapped.
- The presence of high-profile terrorists in prison encourages attempts to kidnap Israelis in order to free them.
- It is a deterrent. A terrorist knows that if he survives his attack, he will be imprisoned under good conditions with other security prisoners, he can earn academic degrees, and his family will be compensated. He might even be released early. Yes, some terrorists are suicidal but many are not. A death penalty, if it is swift and sure (as it is not, for example, in the US) does deter other potential terrorists.
- How can we ask soldiers and police to risk their lives trying to capture terrorists when they know they will receive de facto light sentences? And how can we punish them if, out of frustration, they kill a terrorist that they could have captured alive?
- Honor and deterrence demand that Israel kill terrorist murderers. This is possibly the most important consideration of all. In Arab cultures, a clan that does not retaliate for the killing of its members loses its honor and its power of deterrence. Even if the folks in North Tel Aviv think that we are too civilized to kill our enemies, the Palestinians are certain that it’s because we are too weak, as a culture, to do so. They take this as a sign that their struggle is succeeding and are encouraged to continue it.
There will be objections. What about mistakes? Death is so final. But in the case of terrorist murderers, the evidence is often very strong – they are often caught quite literally red-handed. So there is no reason we can’t insist on a very high standard of proof before imposing the death penalty.
Executions, it is objected, create martyrs. But an imprisoned Barghouti or Tamimi is a martyr already, a living one. In life they continue to work against us, probably more effectively than if they were only names on Palestinian schools, streets and soccer fields. Dead martyrs are no worse than living ones.
But, they say, most civilized countries don’t have death penalties. Yes, but most civilized countries haven’t faced (until recently, anyway) the sheer volume of terrorism that we have.
Israel actually has a death penalty on the books, which was applied in Adolf Eichmann’s case. When the Fogel family was brutally murdered in 2011, prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty, but in the end did not do so. A law requiring the death penalty for murder by terrorism was introduced after the last election by Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, but it did not pass. It should have. Jewish law would probably approve of a death penalty for especially heinous terrorist acts, with a high standard of proof. For example, Barghouti, Tamimi and the Fogel murderers might qualify.
Why has Israel drawn back, even in cases of murder as horrible as the Fogel case, in which five members of a family, including a three-month old baby, were slaughtered by terrorists who were proud of their handiwork? I think the reason is that – as in so many other cases – Israelis feel the need to appease the non-Jewish world, to meet the (supposed) ethical standards of “enlightened,” post-Christian European society.
But that’s an attitude appropriate to a subject people living under foreign rule, not a sovereign state.