A Facebook campaign demanding the execution of “terrorists” went viral in Israel last weekend, with Israelis posting photos of themselves, their children and their pets holding signs demanding the death penalty.
The campaign was launched by Sharon Gal, a former journalist and first-term lawmaker from the far right Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Gal recently sponsored legislation that would have made it easier for judges to sentence ”convicted murderer[s] motivated by nationalism” to death both inside Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Though Israel already has a death penalty option on the books, a death sentence hasn’t been carried out since the hanging of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962. The true purpose of the bill was not the death penalty, it was racist incitement catering to the right-wing chauvinism surging through the Israeli Jewish public after reaching its peak during last summer’s brutal assault on Gaza.
Indeed, the bill is the partial fulfillment of one of many fanatical campaign promises by Yisrael Beiteinu chair Avigdor Lieberman, who rallied his right-wing base during election season by calling for the execution of Palestinian prisoners and the beheading of Palestinians disloyal to the state of Israel.
Bezalel Smotrich, a freshman lawmaker from the ultra-nationalist Habeyit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party and a deputy speaker in the Knesset, attempted to outdo Gal by offering to personally carry out the executions during an appearance on Israel’s Knesset Channel.
“Death to terrorists”
On 8 July, in the lead up to the death penalty bill vote that was ultimately shelved by Netanyahu at the last minute, Gal initiated a Facebook campaign calling on Israelis to pressure the government to support the bill by sharing photos of themselves on social media holding signs that read ”I too am in favor of the death penalty for terrorists.”
“Terrorist” is a loose term in the Israeli lexicon that is interchangeable with “Arab” and applies exclusively to Palestinians. In effect, “death to terrorists” amounts to a thinly veiled version of the far more common Israeli slogan “death to Arabs.”
The response to Gal’s Facebook post was overwhelming, garnering nearly 24,000 likes and more than 1,500 replies, with all but a handful of people pledging their support.
While the unsettling incitement to violence from Israeli politicians is nothing new, this latest campaign highlighted a disturbing trend. Israelis posted photos not just of themselves but also small children agitating for executions. This comes in the aftermath of the Jerusalem Day march in April, when The Electronic Intifada documented the participation of children in “death to the Arabs” marches, suggesting an alarming pattern of ever younger children being steeped in Israel’s culture of supremacist violence.
A commenter named Efrat Trister responded to Gal’s Facebook post with a photo of two little girls clutching the pro-death penalty message. Trister added ”They may be small but they are also smart.”
“My 12-year-old niece also joins the campaign, representing the children,” wrote another commenter who shared a photo of a smiling girl posing with the sign.
Gal jubilantly responded, “More power to you and your niece. You have no idea how much this affects the ministers, who will decide on Sunday whether or not to give their support. We’ve got to continue this until Sunday — more and more Israelis — the more photos the better, here and around the Internet.”
Shira Pahima posted a photo of a happy little girl and a man, possibly her father, holding the same sign, which reads, “Stop tying up the soldiers’ hands, if someone sets out to kill you — kill him first, long live the Jewish state of Israel, all respect to the IDF [Israeli army].”
Obviously these children cannot be held responsible for the views they are advertising, which is why The Electronic Intifada has chosen to pixelate their faces in all these photos (the originals were posted to Facebook without any such protection). Many of the children are too small to even read the messages they are holding. This does however reflect how the violent extremism coursing through Israeli society travels from the top down, incited by government officials like Sharon Gal and Bezalel Smotrich.
It also speaks to the normalization of Jewish extremism within Israel, which has become so casual and accepted that parents see no problem with posting photos of their children championing execution.
Israelis similarly staged photos of their pets holding pro-death penalty signs:
Israelis are not ashamed to publicize their racism and bloodlust.
A man by the name Oren Shtinberg was elated to see his photo featured on Israeli television.
“I’m honored to have had my photo appear today on Oded Ben Ami’s six o’clock news show. I’m crossing my fingers that this law will pass and be implemented without delay!!!” wrote Shtinberg in a Facebook post. Gal replied, “More power to you, Oren. Every photo brings us closer to the goal. The ministers in the committee will not be able to ignore 87 percent of support among the nation of Israel on Sunday.”
A commenter by the name of Lana Letichevski seemed to view the scourge of police murders of US citizens as a source of inspiration, saying: ”This has got to be put into place. It’s not possible that in the US cops can shoot terrorists and here they can’t!!! Instead, they’re sent for a 5-star prison to study for a degree!!”
Oz Maoz added, “I’m also for the death penalty for terrorists and stone-throwers!!!”
Shlomi Eliyahu remarked, “I hope it passes, they [Palestinians] should start to think twice before they pick up a rock even if it’s to play hopscotch.”
Udishiri Ohayon, who identified as a US military veteran, said, “I too, as a former US soldier and a proud Israeli definitely death to terrorists, founders and supporters of terror. Add in various stone throwers, suicide-committers, and firebomb throwers. No excuse, no pity. I’m in!”
The conflation of throwing of rocks at Israeli soldiers with terrorism is a common view among Israelis. Some have even agitated for executing stone throwers on sight, even if they are children.
A commenter by the name Moshe Shecheter posted a photo of a gun with magazine clips full of ammo surrounding the message, “Bibi, unchain our hands.”
Israelis often complain that occupying soldiers are unfairly restrained when dealing with Palestinians, despite reality being the complete opposite.
A commenter named Vered Ben Shitrit shared a photo of herself holding the pro-death penalty sign while wearing her military uniform.
Nir Balinco shared an image of the US flag with the comment, “All of us also want a death penalty for terrorists!!!! Including their family!!!”
While there was little pushback against Gal’s incitement campaign, the few who publicly opposed it were deluged with vitriolic threats. Social justice and human rights blogger Yossi Gurvitz was one of them.
Appalled by Gal’s Facebook campaign, Gurvitz replied with a photo of himself holding a sign that reads:
I also support the death penalty FOR SHARON GAL after a short but fair trial.
(Based on the precedent of JULIUS STREICHER at Nuremberg, who was executed for racist incitement, which was found to be a crime against humanity.)
(Google that, Gal. And try to think of better last words than his. You’re both “journalists.”)
Gurvitz was instantly deluged with an unprecedented volume of threats, some of which he posted to Twitter.
“I wish everyone here painful death, you are haters of Israel, sharmutas [Arabic for whore] of Arabs, you are not Jews, you’re rabble,” cried one angry commenter. ”People like you should be stoned in the city square, you garbage can,” added another. “Sometimes I wonder why Hitler only did half the job,” another remarked.
“I wanted to remind people that incitement to racism may become, if people act on it, a crime against humanity, and that people have been punished for it,” Gurvitz told me over email. “I expected some hatred in return — I’m rather used to it — but I was frankly surprised by the volume of it,” he continued. “I received more death threats and rape threats in the last two days than I received in the last two years.”
Gurvitz attributed the lack of opposition to the incitement campaign to a weak Israeli left.
“There was some push-back, aged leftists expressing their shock and dismay (which is a specialty of the species), but hardly any coherent action against it. The signs themselves are of course legal, but the Israeli left has little power in it to actually oppose it,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the ritualistic incitement to violence by Israelis on social media, encouraged by top government officials, has proven deadly for Palestinians.
A new report by a group called the Coalition Against Racism finds that a sharp rise in anti-Arab attacks since 2013 coincided with racist incitement by Israeli elected officials and decision makers.
Netanyahu’s incitement to revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens last year led to the burning alive of Muhammad Abu Khudair by Jewish extremists who met at a right-wing “death to the Arabs” rally the day before that may have been organized online.
Emboldened by an Israeli public and its leaders cheering for executions, trigger-happy Israeli soldiers will more than likely crank up the violence. As for the vigilantes, there’s no predicting who or where they will target next, but when they do, they will not have acted alone.
With translation from Hebrew by Dena Shunra.