Israel changes tack as Covid-19 cases increase

Not wanting a return to lockdown, the Israeli government is planning to bring back mobile phone surveillance


As the daily tally of new cases of Covid-19 infections continues to rise in Israel, the government is loath to order Israelis back in to lockdown. Instead, it is planning to bring back mobile-phone surveillance by the security service and has raised the fine for anyone caught outside their homes without a face-mask by 150 per cent.

Israel continued to oscillate this week between a gradual return to normality and dire warnings of a second wave of the pandemic. Over the weekend, concerts with audiences of up to 250 people were allowed to take place again -and on Monday, intercity rail travel resumed after a two-month hiatus. Meanwhile, the numbers continued to go up, with 418 new cases confirmed on Tuesday, only six weeks after the government had announced that Israel had successfully dealt with the pandemic, when the daily number of new cases had sunk to just 18.

While the number of new infections has yet to result in a corresponding rise in serious cases necessitating hospitalisation, the health ministery has instructed four medical centres to re-open the special coronavirus wards they closed down last month, in preparation for a new wave.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last Thursday that due to the renewed outbreak: “We have finished reopening the economy. There will be no further easing of closures for now.”

However, the scheduled changes affecting concert-halls and intercity trains, were not called off and resumed on Monday as planned.

To keep the numbers of passengers down, Israel Rail introduced a new online reservations system and did not allow purchase of tickets on site. Whether as a result, or due to a reluctance on the part of commuters, initial passenger numbers were 50 per cent lower than usual. On Monday, the government announced that police would begin enforcing the public order to wear a face-mask outdoors at all times and the automatic fine for anyone caught not wearing a mask was raised to 500 shekels (£115), up from the previous fine of 200 shekels.

But the more controversial measure mooted by the government is the resumption of mobile-phone surveillance by the Shin Bet. The security service’s tracking system, originally implemented three months ago, has been criticised by many, including within the security establishment, as being both inefficient and overly intrusive.

Last week, following recommendations of Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, the surveillance had finally been discontinued. However, at the insistence of Prime Minister Netanyahu, on Wednesday, the cabinet voted in favour of legislation to restore the surveillance if considered necessary.

The criticism over the mobile-phone surveillance is linked to the failure of the Health Ministry to put in place a contact-tracing system.

The voluntary mobile-phone tracing app, “magen” (shield), has not been installed by most Israelis and is seen as ineffective.

Mr Netanyahu said that a new app is being developed but could take weeks, if not months, to develop.

In the meantime, the Health Ministry’s senior officials are still divided over the need to set up a new contact-tracing apparatus and the hiring of hundreds of medical students to staff it. The scheme is at an early stage.


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