Was democracy bypassed? Israel will monitor citizens’ phones to contain virus

Opposition politicians criticise decision to announce measures at 1.30am on Tuesday


Israel’s opposition has accused the Netanyahu government of bypassing scrutiny after a middle-of-the-night announcement that police and security services would be allowed to track people’s mobile phones.

The regulations, which allow citizens suspected of being infected with coronavirus to be tracked, were announced at 1.30am on Tuesday morning.

The new powers given to the Shin Bet intelligence service and the police make it legal to use technology that hitherto has only been used in counter-terror operations.

Officials will be able to track movements and connections made by civilians through their mobile phones to warn others who have come into contact with them that they need to go in to quarantine.

Court orders are usually required to approve electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens, but the new regulations have suspended this requirement.

The powers were first mooted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night in a televised briefing. But in the two days it took for them to be announced, MKs in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee — which oversees intelligence matters — demanded to have them presented to its members.

Only on Monday afternoon, half an hour before the new Knesset was inaugurated and the old committee’s mandate ended, was the sub-committee on secret services allowed to see the draft regulations.

The committee objected to the regulations being authorised before further discussion — but the government still went ahead.

 Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who agreed to the new regulations, explained that the phone data gathered by the Shin Bet and police will only be seen only by Health Ministry officials. He made it clear that the data collected is not to be used in criminal proceedings.

Mr Netanyahu said that “since the epidemic is spreading at a massive pace, even a delay of an hour in using these tools could cause the deaths of very many Israelis, as is happening with the deaths of thousands in Italy and other places in the world.”

The opposition, however, was not reassured.

“The government approved the emergency regulations in the dead of night, in a move of underhanded opportunism,” tweeted Gabi Ashkenazi, the chairman of the outgoing Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and one of the leaders of Blue & White.

He claimed the committee was not given the option to seriously delve into the issue and complete deliberations, adding: “it’s inappropriate to approve such a measure in this manner, without public and parliamentary supervision.”

It remains unclear at this point when parliamentary oversight will be restored. The new Knesset was sworn in on Monday afternoon but it has yet to empanel committees.

In an angry meeting held on Tuesday with the Knesset speaker’s office, the Likud representative MK Miki Zohar demanded that due to the coronavirus restrictions the new committees for now have only 10 members each, half from the coalition and half the opposition.

But opposition parties demanded the committees reflect the fact that they currently hold a slim majority over the Netanyahu coalition. Blue & White whip Ofer Shelach accused Likud of “acting on Bibi’s orders and trying to close the Knesset.”

The question of how the Knesset will function in this period also relates to the identity of the speaker, a position currently occupied by Likud’s Yuli Edelstein, who is leaving the role.

The opposition has demanded an immediate vote on the new speaker but Mr Edelstein has refused, claiming that “hasty political moves like electing a permanent Knesset speaker and controversial legislation are aimed at ending the possibility of a unity government that the nation wants.”

The opposition is planning to petition the Supreme Court next week against the speaker if he continues to block the vote.

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