At Issue
Monday, November 18, 2002
    Should those who assist suicide bombers be given the death penalty?
Israeli criminal law allows for the death penalty only for someone convicted of Nazi war crimes; in military law, the death penalty for murder has been imposed but never implemented.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat HaDin - Israel Law Center, debates Lila Margalit, a staff attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner
Send your reaction
Dear Lila Margalit,

Tragically, the current approach to deterring suicide bombers is just not working. Those who strap explosives to themselves to inflict the maximum amount of civilian carnage are obviously not concerned for their own fate and cannot be influenced by the fear of capital punishment. However, security experts have determined they remain worried about the plight of their families and friends. The only means of swaying those crazed by ideology before they set out to murder Israelis is to convince them of certain punishment against those to whom they are connected by their last vestige of humanity. Suicide bombers must understand that they are ensuring the death not just of their Jewish enemies, but also of the family members and associates who are aiding them. Those who abet the bombers in their attacks on cafés, buses and supermarkets are no less legally liable than the bombers themselves. They are a crucial part of this conspiracy to commit mass murder and they must receive the same severe sentence that the bombers would receive had they survived the blast. There can be no argument of the unfairness of "collective punishment" as these individuals have played a material role in the deaths of civilians. Israel must act to arrest, prosecute and sentence to death those who facilitate the bombings. With the execution of Adolf Eichmann, the Israeli justice system set the legal and moral precedent for carrying out capital punishment against those who aid and abet in mass murders. If we are determined to stop the terror, the bombers and their accomplices must know that a certain death awaits them both.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner

Dear Nitsana Darshan-Leitner,

The senseless slaughter of innocent civilians on our streets is indeed a crime of unimaginable magnitude. I agree wholeheartedly that we as a society must find a way of preventing terrorism. We must do so, however, while preserving our own humanity. Your proposal dangerously blurs the fundamental distinction between individual responsibility and guilt by association. A society that respects human rights cannot punish people -- let alone kill them -- simply to deter others. True accessories to terror must be held accountable for their actions. They must be punished, however, in proportion to their specific, individual deeds, and in keeping with the norms of our judicial system. What makes terrorism so abhorrent is its total disregard for the sanctity of human life. Capital punishment undermines our commitment to that very same value and cheapens it. It sends a clear message that killing is an acceptable means of solving problems, that murder is somehow no longer wrong when it is committed by the state. The death penalty is not a form of self-defense -- it involves the deliberate, premeditated killing of an individual who has already been incarcerated. Nobody -- absolutely nobody -- has the right to purposefully take a human life. As we struggle to survive as human beings, we must not lose sight of the principles and values that make our survival worthwhile. If we abandon our most cherished beliefs in the face of terror, we may "win the battle," but we have already lost the war.

Lila Margalit
Lila Margalit
Send your reaction

Those who aid and abet the suicide bombers in targeting Israeli civilians must be taught that they, too, have forfeited their own lives. The sole consideration in deciding whether to impose the death penalty should be its deterrent effect on potential murderers. Quaint liberal notions such as the "sanctity" of the terrorists’ lives are an anachronism that Western democracies can no longer afford to entertain. A nation that kills an aggressive enemy in self-defense, whether in actual combat, in a preventive strike or after a trial and conviction, can never be morally compared to the violent aggressor himself. Psuedo-ethical restraints on Israel’s military courts and security forces in the struggle against the suicide bombers might play out well at the cocktail parties of London, Paris, Los Angeles and Ramat Aviv, but they inevitably result in the devastation of more of our innocent families. Israel’s raison d’etre is the safeguarding of Jewish life. When the state fulfills this moral duty at all costs, including instituting the death penalty, it indeed becomes, as our prophets have charged us to be, "a light unto the nations."



If the prophets have taught us anything at all, it’s that one must stand one’s moral ground in the face of adversity, and that values matter most when things seem bleakest. Our respect for the sanctity of human life -- all human life -- is not a "quaint liberal notion" to be discarded when expedient, but a cornerstone of our very humanity. The dilemmas we face as a democratic society in dealing with terror are complex and profound. There are no easy solutions. The factual basis of your argument is as problematic as its moral foundations. Capital punishment has never been an effective deterrent. As recent U.S. studies have demonstrated, jurisdictions that retain the death penalty actually have higher homicide rates than those that don’t. In the context of terror, the issue of deterrence is even more complex; more likely than not, executions would simply serve to encourage more violence. Values do not become obsolete or "anachronistic" in times of crisis. It is precisely during hard times like these that they are put to the test. Physical survival and democracy do not compete in a zero-sum game; it is our job to find ways of dealing with terror without compromising our moral integrity.


Click here to send your reaction

© Copyright 2001, The Jerusalem Report

Get the latest Legal Activist News from Israel with the Israel Law Center Update. Enter your email address below:  

© 2003 Shurat HaDin - Israel Law Center. All rights reserved.
Web site designed by Vision Burst