When four Knesset members proposed legislation last week to institute the death penalty for child murderers, it revived a long-dormant Israeli debate over the pros and cons of this penalty in general. The latest installment, in today’s Jerusalem Post, supports the current de facto ban on executions, arguing that they deter neither murderers nor terrorists.
Regardless of whether that’s true, it misses the point: Israel desperately needs a death penalty for hard-core terrorists — not as a deterrent but to prevent them from being released to kill again. And, equally important, to spare the country wrenching emotional blackmail over kidnapped soldiers.
While ordinary Israeli murderers usually serve their sentences in full, terrorists have an excellent chance of being released early — either in an effort to “bolster Palestinian moderates” or in exchange for Israelis (or their remains, or even a “sign of life”) kidnapped by terrorist organizations. Israel releases hundreds of terrorists for one or both of these reasons almost every year. Most recently, for instance, it freed 20 female terrorists in exchange for a mere videotape of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
There are no official statistics on what percentage of these freed terrorists return to kill again. While one would hope the security services track this data, no government has ever published it, possibly realizing that if the statistics were known, public support for prisoner releases would plummet. Unofficial statistics — leaked to journalists or compiled by private organizations — vary widely, ranging from 25-80 percent. But even the lower figure is hardly negligible.
And the anecdotal evidence is compelling. In 2007, for instance, the Almagor Terror Victims Association compiled a list of 30 attacks committed by freed terrorists in 2000-2005 that together killed 177 Israelis. IDF Col. Herzl Halevy said this September that terrorists freed in a 2004 swap with Hezbollah composed “the entire infrastructure of Islamic Jihad” in subsequent years — during which Islamic Jihad bombings killed at least 37 Israelis. In short, executing terrorists, and hence preventing their release, would save lives.
But beyond that, executions would also end the agonizing debate over whether to trade terrorists for kidnapped Israelis. Most Israelis, for instance, would have no objection to freeing minor offenders in exchange for Shalit; the problem is that Hamas is demanding hundreds of mass murderers — who, if freed, would almost certainly kill again. Had these terrorists been executed, however, they would not be available to trade. Hamas would either have to make do with low-level offenders or get out of the kidnapping business.
Might that not encourage terrorists to kill rather than kidnap? Well, do the math: over the past decade, terrorists have kidnapped exactly two live Israelis (plus five dead ones, for whose remains Israel also paid). During the same period, freed terrorists have killed hundreds. It may sound cold, but that’s a pretty good cost-benefit ratio.
The bottom line is that Israel needs a death penalty for terrorists now. Few things would do more to save Israeli lives.