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Israelis Face Draconian Measures as Government Fears Losing Control of Virus

Authorities take a half-step toward a police-enforced closure, while plans to use geolocation data raise serious rights concerns

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Reporters practicing social distancing as Benjamin Netanyahu releases a statement, March 17, 2020.
Reporters practicing social distancing as Benjamin Netanyahu releases a statement, March 17, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The decision has been in the air for days. Though Finance Ministry officials waged a rearguard action against it, their effort was doomed to fail.

Tuesday afternoon, the government decided to impose a partial closure on Israel. And in the ensuing hours, the streets did empty, in stark contrast to Monday’s mass visits to parks and playgrounds.

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As with most decisions in the coronavirus crisis, the latest step represents a compromise mandated by bureaucratic differences of opinion. The Health Ministry dictated an additional list of harsh decrees: Leave the house only for essential matters, don’t go to parks or playgrounds, no social visits, etc. But so far, there’s nobody to enforce them, since the police and local governments haven’t been given enforcement and punishment power.

To borrow a term from the situation in the territories, this is what the army calls a “breathing closure.” How the orders are obeyed will depend on the public – and unlike in the case of the Palestinians, there’s no effort to enforce them by force.

The hope appears to be the tighter restrictions, combined with the climbing number of diagnosed patients, will be sufficient to deter people from leaving home. Tuesday night, for the first time, there was an official forecast that thousands of Israelis could die from the virus.

The Health Ministry believes the true number of coronavirus patients totals in the thousands, but most haven’t been diagnosed because they didn’t display symptoms and because testing has been limited. The government still fears losing control of the virus, which would result in hospitals and intensive care units being flooded.

This is a half-step toward a full closure, in which the police and maybe the army would enforce the ban and only people in essential jobs would still go to work. France took a similar step on Tuesday, so far just for two weeks. This would have seemed inconceivable a week ago.

The new orders, the likes of which Israelis have never before experienced, were published at noon as an urgent announcement by the Health Ministry. Many people first heard about them through WhatsApp groups.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has devoted his nightly television appearances to detailed instructions (surely important) about blowing one’s nose with a tissue and “social distancing,” didn’t inform the public of the new rules directly. He commented on them for the first time Tuesday night.

Netanyahu as he tells Israelis they should cover their mouth with a tissue when coughing, during a press conference on March 11, 2020.
Netanyahu as he tells Israelis they should cover their mouth with a tissue when coughing, during a press conference on March 11, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Incidentally, he hasn’t taken questions from journalists even once since the crisis began. His “press conferences” are unidirectional statements to the nation.

In the background, an unusual legal battle is taking place that could have worrying implications for Israel’s democracy. Netanyahu is pushing his plan to authorize the police and the Shin Bet security service to track cellphone geolocation data with all his might, so that anyone who should be quarantined can be and anyone who may have come into contact with a carrier can be located.

But after the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on the secret services raised objections, the prime minister approved these draconian regulations through a cabinet decision in the dead of night, bypassing the Knesset.

The stated goal is laudable – fighting a lethal virus by every possible means. But there’s a fear of lax supervision by the authorities that could enable this exceptional tactic to be used for inappropriate ends.

While the Shin Bet has experience with protecting such information, the Health Ministry has no such experience. This is a breach that could result in serious violations of many people’s privacy.

Many things remain unclear about the new geolocation rules. As always, the devil is in the details, and those details weren’t fully divulged in either the cabinet decision or the Shin Bet’s statements. Following Edward Snowden’s leaks, one would have to be naïve to believe our personal information will remain completely protected.

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