Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is escalating his war on the Palestinian people — although for reasons almost entirely related to Israeli politics. He has just given the green light to legislation that would make it easier for Israeli courts to issue death sentences against Palestinians accused of carrying out “terrorist” acts.
Netanyahu’s decision was made on Nov. 4, but the wrangling over the issue has been taking place for some time. The “death penalty bill” has been the rallying cry for the Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by ultra-nationalist Israeli politician and current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, since its 2015 election campaign.
But, 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 by 94 votes to six, with Netanyahu himself opposing it. It has been defeated several times since then. However, the political mood in Israel has shifted in ways that has obliged Netanyahu into giving in 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 to become a carbon copy of that of Lieberman. The latter had made the death penalty one of his main conditions of joining Netanyahu’s coalition.
In January, Yisrael Beiteinu’s proposed bill passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset. Then, this month, Netanyahu said he would advance the bill. Lieberman has prevailed.
This reality reflects the competing currents in Israeli politics, where the long-reigning PM is increasingly embattled thanks to accusations from both within and outside his coalition of being too weak in his handling of the Gazan resistance.
Coupled with the tightening ring of police investigations pertaining to corruption by Netanyahu, his family and close aides, the Israeli leader is pounding on Palestinians at every possible opportunity to display his prowess.
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. The PM is “weak,” “afraid” and is unable to take decisive steps to rein in Gaza, “therefore he should go home,” Barak said during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10.
The Israeli leader is pounding on Palestinians at every possible opportunity to display his prowess
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 in reference to the killing of hundreds of Gazans, including women, children and newly graduated police cadets, in Gaza on Dec. 27, 2008. That was the start of a war that killed and wounded thousands of Palestinians and set the stage for the 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.
In Israel, wars — as well as racist laws that target Palestinians — are often the outcome of politicking. Unchallenged by a strong party and unfazed by UN criticism, Israeli leaders continue to flex their muscles, appeal to their radicalized constituency and define their political turfs at the expense of Palestinians.
The death penalty bill is no exception. This bill, once enshrined in law, will expectedly be applied to Palestinians only because, in Israel, the term “terrorism” almost always applies to Palestinians and hardly, if ever, to Israelis.
Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Palestinian and one of the few embattled Arab members of the Knesset, understands the intentions of the bill. The law is “intended mainly for the Palestinian people,” she told reporters in 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 Israel’s “extreme right.”
Moreover, the death penalty bill must be understood in the wider context of the growing racism and chauvinism in Israel, and the undermining of whatever feeble claim to democracy that Israel had, until recently, possessed. On July 19, the Israeli government approved the Jewish “nation state law,” which designates Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people,” while openly denigrating Palestinians and their culture, language and identity.
As many have feared, Israel’s racist self-definition is now inspiring a host of new laws that will further target and marginalize the country’s native Palestinian inhabitants. The passing of the death penalty bill would be the icing on the cake in this horrific and unchallenged Israeli agenda that transcends party lines and unites most of the country’s politicians in an ongoing hate-fest.
Of course, Israel has already executed hundreds of Palestinians with what is known as “targeted assassinations” or “neutralization,” while killing many more in cold blood. So, in a sense, the Israeli bill, once it becomes law, 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.
Just like the nation state law, the death penalty bill exposes Israel’s racist nature and complete disregard for international law — a painful reality that should be urgently and openly challenged by the international community. Those who have allowed themselves to stay on the fence as Israel brutalizes Palestinians should immediately break their silence.
No government, not even Israel’s, should be allowed to embrace racism and violate human rights so brazenly and without a minimal 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. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud