Netanyahu-backed bill may lead to more death sentences against Palestinians

Under the new bill, civilian courts can hand out the death penalty on a wide variety of cases. Military courts will no longer require a unanimous verdict in such cases.

November 08, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
Palestinians in Israel prison
This file picture shows Palestinian prisoners in the yard of Israel's Megiddo prison.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 5 declared that his Likud party would support reforming the death penalty laws in the country. This reform would make it easier for courts to hand down death sentences to Palestinians resisting occupation by Israelis illegally settled on their lands.   

The reforms were first proposed in a bill placed before the parliament in January by one of the parties in the ruling coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu, which is headed by incumbent Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The bill passed through the first reading with 52 votes in favour and 49 against.

Civilian courts, under the current laws, can sentence a convict to death only in cases pertaining to Nazis and their associates or cases of genocide.  The proposed reforms seek to remove this limitation. The last instance of a capital punishment was in 1962, when Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who’d played a key role in the Holocaust, was sentenced to death.

In case of military courts, which operate in the occupied territories, the death penalty can be handed to Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis who have occupied their land and settled illegally only if all the three judges on the bench unanimously agree to it.

If the reforms proposed in the bill are approved, handing down the death penalty will no more require unanimity among the judges on the bench. So long as two of the three judges on the bench agree, Palestinians found guilty of killing Israelis can be handed death sentences.

While Israeli settlers accused of crimes are tried in civilian courts even in the occupied territories, the military courts only try Palestinians. Notorious for its unfair trials, these courts have a conviction rate of almost 100%. The United Nations has said that the manner in which trials are conducted in these courts is in violation of international laws.

“Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 6, the death penalty cannot be handed down in instances where a fair trial has not been guaranteed. The military court system has been broadly demonstrated to not be meeting the international standards of a fair trial, and therefore cannot hand down the death sentence,” Addamer, a Palestinian human rights association, has said in a statement.  

Voices opposing the reform have even come from Israel’s security establishment. However, Netanyahu told his party that opposition from the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces should not be allowed to deter the parliament from passing the bill.

Deliberations will now be held by the parliament’s Constitution and Law Committee, following which the latest version of the bill will be placed before the parliament for a final vote.

There are more than 5,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, 270 of whom are children.