The Sanctity of Death:
The History of Death Penalty in Israel
Shai J. Lavi
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The Sanctity of Death:. The History of Death Penalty in Israel. Shai J. Lavi.
Why has the death penalty, with the single exception of Adolph Eichmann, never been applied in Israel, not even to terrorists? How should on understand the absence of the death penalty, given the accumulation of non judicial killings of terrorists? Why has the punishment of death been kept in confinement? What, in the collective memory of Israeli lawmakers, security experts and the general public, raises the fear of the gallows? What ghosts are still haunting the guillotine? To answer these questions the essay traces the history of the death penalty back into the times of the British mandate, exploring one formative moment, through which the death penalty became a dangerous spectacle.
On the first day of July 1947, a small group of British soldiers, Jewish residents, and newspaper reporters was making its way through a thicket of eucalyptus trees at the outskirts of Netanya, a small town north of Tel-Aviv. They were searching the woods to find the dead bodies of two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Marvyn Paice, who were killed several days earlier by the â€œEtzelâ€, the National Military Organization a dissident Zionist underground movement. As they approached their target ,a horrifying sight appeared. The corpses of the two soldiers were hanging from a tree, their shirts covering their heads, dry blood that had dripped from their open mouths staining their close, and a short statement attached to their chests. The note explained that the two were executed after an Irgun court had heard them testify to their crimes and added that the two asked for pardon but the court rejected their plea. The note neither mentioned nor tried to hide the vengeful character of this deed. The execution of three Irgun members several days earlier by a British military court left little room for doubt.
Less than an hour after the corpses of the dead sergeants were found, Ben-Ami, the Mayor of Netanya distributed the following declaration to the press: â€œOf all the crimes that took place till this day on this land, this is the most grievous and disgusting one and will stain the purity of our peoples struggle for freedom. May this act of hanging remain as a sign of Cain on the doers of this disgraceful deed! The heavens and the earth are my witnesses,â€ continued the Mayor, â€œthat most of our population took desperate measures to free the hostages and prevent this shame.â€ Ben-Ami was expressing, the
mainstream response of the Yishuv (the Zionist establishment), which opposed the terrorist attacks of the Irgun not least out of fear for British retaliation.
For the Irgun, the killing of the two British sergeants had a different significance. It was clearly not an extraordinary crime of violence, but nor was it an ordinary attack against British military targets. The British soldiers were kidnapped in an attempt to deter the British authorities from executing three Irgun members who were caught during a previous operation â€“ the break-in to the most guarded prison-house in Akko and the release of its Jewish inmates.
The Irgun had good reason to hope that the British would yield to their demand to abolish the death penalty, as they did in the past, when a similar threat was posed. The kidnapping of the two British sergeants, however, did not have the expected impact. The reason is not fully clear, but it would seem that the British believed that the situation in Palestine was gradually getting out of control, and that they had to show a firm hand. The Irgun captives were thus executed despite the threat, and Martin and Paice were expected to pay the price. A grave decision was now facing the Irgunâ€™s
leadership, but there was no real hesitation, it was clear that the execution of the sergeants would take place.
From Punishment to Revenge
Shortly after the hanging of the British sergeants became known, the leaders of the Yishuv dreaded the possibility of British retaliation. Tel-Avivâ€™s Mayor, Israel Rokach, turned to the governor of the district for assurance. â€œThere is nothing to fear, there will be no retaliation by the security forces,â€ promised the governor and added â€œOne may count on the fair treatment of the British soldier.â€
The truth â€“ quite to the contrary â€“ was soon discovered. The British response began at around 8:30 in the evening at the corner of the streets Ben-Yehuda and Trumpeldor. Till that hour the people on the streets were relaxed as expected of a first summer night in August. Some were sitted at Cafes, others were strolling or waiting for the late show at the cinema. This pastoral setting turned within minutes to a horrible site of violent gun fire. Dozens of soldiers and police officers, some where wearing uniform but most dressed as civilians were carrying machine-guns, pistols and heavy metal clubs, arrived at the place in three trucks escorted by a police armed vehicle. The police officers and soldiers attacked shocked citizens with their clubs and battered irrespectively men and women, old and young. When the streets eventually cleared away from citizens and there was no one left to beat up, the â€œmen of the lawâ€ begun to break and shatter window shops. Several policemen who were on duty at that time and saw what was being done, did not act to prevent the outburst of terror. â€œThese are not policemen, and we are not allowed to intervene, these are soldiers,â€ answered the law officers on duty to citizens who asked them to use their authority.
In unauthorized reports it was said that armed cars fired on Alenbi street, and as a result a man on a bus was killed and a woman injured. It has been reported that in Shkhunat Haâ€™ Tikva fire was opened from out of an armed car, and a bomb was thrown out of it into a Caf.. As a result three people were killed and several wounded. It was officially reported that all police vehicles on duty in Tel-Aviv were ordered to report back to their bases, their weapons were examined, and they were not in use.â€
Years later, long after the establishment of the State of Israel, the spectacle of the hanging bodies of Martin and Paice will return to haunt the Israeli public once and again. Indeed, this is how the former Israeli Minister of Justice explained his reservations from enacting a death penalty for Palestinian terrorists:
â€œEvery movement that sees itself as a freedom movement needs its martyrs that will set an example to the young generation of their people. Executed Palestinians will remain in the conscious of their people as great heroesâ€¦. A verdict of death against a terrorists will inevitably lead to the kidnapping of Israelis to prevent the executionâ€¦ The affair will end in one of two possible ways: in the contempt of surrendering to terrorists and the abolition de-facto of the death penalty, or in a cycle of bloodshed of gallows and killing of hostages. One recalls the kidnapping of the two British sergeants by the Irgun. The purpose of the kidnapping was to prevent the execution of Irgun members which were sentenced to death by a British court. The British authorities were not deterred: the Irgun members were executed and the two sergeants were killed. Since that episode the British stopped executing members of the Irgun. The lesson is clear.â€
Still today, among the primary reasons against death penalty to terrorist are the fears of drawing punishment into a cycle of revenge and of turning terrorists into martyrs.
Clifford Martin ( left ), one of the two hanged British soldiers, was Jewish according to Jewish law. His mother, an Egyptian Jew, had married an Anglo-Catholic colonial official. Interviewed years after the event, none of the dozen Irgun members who were in contact with the kidnaped soldiers could recall ever hearing a word from Martin as to his religious background. Indeed, to communicate with him, they were forced to speak Arabic.
Daily Express carried a large picture on the front page, showing the sergeants as they were found, hands tied behind their back, hooded, and hanging from eucalyptus trees under the headline: â€˜Hanged Britons: picture that will shock the world.â€™
What was the impact of this grim episode? It had a completely disproportionate effect in convincing the British authorities that the longer it continued the greater the danger of a breakdown of discipline in the security forces.
According to the historian Ritchie Ovendale, it was the Exodus episode, together with the hanging of the two sergeants, that finally convinced the Labour government to surrender the Mandate and withdraw British forces from Palestine.