Early Sunday morning five Palestinian citizens in Al-Khader village south of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank were detained by Israeli Occupying Forces without charges leveled against them, a common enough occurrence in the quiet village which just last month saw 100 athletes sequestered, searched, and interrogated at gunpoint in its soccer stadium after practice. But now, on top of the characteristically violent and indiscriminate means of detaining Palestinians, there may be even more reason besides Israeli contempt for due process to fear for prisoners’ fates.
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets his way, Israel will be able to add among its repertoire of an unwritten constitution and ethnonationalist Basic Laws the right to put Palestinians to death.
Israel technically already has the death penalty, but it’s only been used twice in the country’s entire history. For perspective, and perhaps to show you exactly what genus of evil Israel sees the Palestinians falling under, one of the two men capitally punished was Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi Holocaust organizer and, I hope it doesn’t need clarifying, a non-Israeli citizen.
If anyone ever deserved execution, it was Eichmann. But in the last few decades, leading democracies and human rights groups have been trying to move away from this controversial if not wholly immoral form of punishment, not towards it. Even in Israel the call for the death penalty against Palestinians accused of taking part in terrorist acts, an offense leveled without discretion against even non-violent forms of resistance to Israel’s illegal occupation, has in recent times been left to the more religious-nationalist and ultra-nationalist Israeli parties and members of government. Most notably the call for capital punishment against Palestinians formed the 2015 banner-call of Defense Minister and head of the Beiteinu Party, Avigdor Leiberman. (It’s a further shock that ethno-nationalism accounts for two separate, prominent parties in Israel, not just the one as it does for the Trump-era American GOP.)
Formerly less gung-ho on the bill, Netanyahu has now changed his tune, and what a wicked tune to change to.
This came some weeks ago after the Education Minister Naftali Bennet called for the advancement of the bill in the Knesset. The issue has become a lynchpin of political jockeying, with recent weeks seeing Leiberman and Bennet taking to the issue to better position their separate nationalist parties in upcoming elections, to say nothing of their true convictions on the matter. It’s the kind of advocacy that makes the Hillary Clinton-targeted “Lock Her Up” chant by Trump Supporters look like friendly ribbing. Moreover it’s a game whose winner must show the most vile contempt for human life.
In addition to being Education Minister, Bennet is part of the religious-nationalist faction Jewish Home. Typifying that unofficial Israeli slogan, that Jews born in San Francisco have the right to citizenship and self-determination in Israel over Palestinians born in Jerusalem, Bennet was born to immigrants from the West Coast of the United States. If his current station of Education Minister is any testament, they were no doubt in a rush to shirk the most important of American democratic principles that separate religious nationalism from education, let alone government.
But there you have it, Israel is rife with ethno-nationalist lunatics, religious and secular. All that was missing was for Netanyahu to green light the death penalty bill. But he did them one better, announcing his support for capital punishment from the Halamish settlement, standing on land long settled by Palestinians for millennia in sight of various nearby Palestinian villages awaiting their turn on the colonial chopping-block. There he promised at last for Palestinians a privilege only one Israeli citizen and a Nazi has ever enjoyed in the history of the nation, the right to be put to death.
The bill has been stalling in recent weeks but Netanayahu no stranger to breaking international law, is ready to give it his all in response to truly unbelievable Israeli criticism that he has been too weak and lenient on Gaza. If only that criticism were actually true, or that the cute moniker “Bibi” actually fit the man. Then Israel might resemble something of the democracy they shamelessly masquerade as.
But for Palestinians it’s nothing to be met with irony. The five Al-Khader citizens detained only days ago join 25 in the rest of the West Bank taken on the same night. Those 25 join 511 Palestinians detained in October alone, 74 of them minors and 15 of them women, swelling the total number of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel closer to 7,000.
For the record, among the five Al-Khader citizens detained was farmer Ahmad Salah and his brother. Between photos of his children or of himself posing playfully with grapes he had grown, a quick glance at Ahmad’s Facebook posts shows he is vocal about what the UN have themselves consented are brutal usurpations of basic human rights. No advocacy for violence or anything out of line with basic democratic principles to be found. And yet, in addition to handcuffs, the man was blindfolded in the middle of the night, leaving him and his family with no inkling of an idea when he might be back.
What followed the raid was an unofficial curfew which residents know all too well not to break. Spending that night in the village, I was advised to follow suit. Stores closed and residents remained in their homes, not willing to risk detainment and indefinite imprisonment by walking even a few meters down the road to a friend’s or family member’s home. Not to see a sister’s new baby in the home I was staying, named after a deceased family member recently swallowed whole by the crisis, or to take up that paused round of video game FIFA 17 at a cousin’s (’17 because FIFA 18 and ’19 are too expensive). Palestinians know too many innocent human beings who have been taken and detained inexplicably for years on end. Brothers, sisters, cousins, handfuls of best friends, or even their own selves. Most without charges, or with charges coming only well into detention. Without or without them, very few prisoners ever see trial, instead being released after months or years as inexplicably as they were taken.
Anyone who cares about human rights should shudder at the thought of what fate might be awaiting these men, women, and minors sitting in detention if the favorite of Israeli criminal convictions, “terrorism,” gets to carry a new weight to it – the right to put those Palestinians detained and trialed with dubious legality to death. A new power Israel’s record indicates it probably won’t waste time in trying out.
How can a nation be trusted to carry out the most barbaric and archaic of legal punishments against an ethnicity of human beings which it has a long, proud, and brutally violent record of denying to them their inalienable human rights? If the consistency of the indiscriminate, indefinite detentions can be counted on, as well as dubious convictions by incredulously partial Israeli juries against Palestinians as “terrorists,” we can be sure that an allocation of capital punishment will follow a similar thread.
Israeli barbarity is about to set a new precedent for human rights violations if the international standard of thumb twiddling continues and president Benjamin Netanyahu and the larger racist, ethno-nationalist impetus of modern Israel gets its way. Don’t let it.