'Total Suspension of Individual Freedom': Inside Israel's Secret Coronavirus Debate

Public health services chief tells Knesset intelligence panel that Israel needs to employ a total lockdown and personal monitoring in the struggle to contain the spread of the disease

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A worker disinfecting the Knesset auditorium in Jerusalem, March 15, 2020, ahead of the 23rd Knesset being sworn in.
A worker disinfecting the Knesset auditorium ahead of the 23rd Knesset being sworn in, March 15, 2020.Credit: Adina Wollman / Knesset Spokesperson's Office

Israel’s public health services chief told an emergency meeting of lawmakers on an intelligence panel earlier this week that the key to eradicating the coronavirus pandemic relies on the enforcement of strict isolation measures, and the timing of introducing that policy.

In her remarks to the Knesset Subcommittee on Intelligence and Secret Services on Monday, concerning the Shin Bet security service’s monitoring of coronavirus patients, Sigal Sadetsky referenced the Chinese handling of COVID-19. She told the panel’s chairman, MK Gabi Ashkenazi (Kahol Lavan), that it all depends on “when you start it and how strongly you do it,” and that she believes “everyone will do the same thing.”

When MK Yoav Kish (Likud) sought to clarify whether she meant a total lockdown or curfew, Sadetsky replied: “A lockdown and personal monitoring of people, and a total halt to personal freedoms.”

Sadetsy and Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the Health Ministry’s director general, tried to persuade committee members to give the Shin Bet the go-ahead to use “special technological means” to detect where people diagnosed with the disease had been and the people they were exposed to while they were contagious, and to isolate them.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Saturday that such methods had been adopted, it provoked a strong public outcry due to the extraordinary loss of civil liberties by methods normally reserved for use in the war on terror.

These special means include gathering data about a person’s location via their cellphone and additional technological information using secret tools, and cross-referencing all of the data.

The process identifies all of the contacts coronavirus patients have had and the places they were, whether they are aware of it or not. A text message is then sent to any people who may have been affected, telling them to self-isolate.

The draft proposal of the government’s plan had already been sent to the intelligence committee’s legal advisers on Sunday, but at that time it was kept classified. Panel members were only able to see it the following day, when they had just one hour to debate it before the new Knesset was sworn in.

Ashkenazi wouldn’t approve the proposal without an in-depth discussion. He proposed reappointing the committee as soon as the new Knesset was sworn in. But the cabinet approved the plan in the dead of night the following day, bypassing parliamentary oversight by using state emergency regulations.

Kahol Lavan MK Gabi Ashkenazi speaking in the Knesset, September 2019.
Kahol Lavan MK Gabi Ashkenazi speaking in the Knesset, September 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The minutes of the brief panel meeting, only some of which has been approved for publication, show that Bar Siman Tov and Sadetsky painted a very dark picture of the situation.

They tried to persuade the panel that only swift and “strong” measures could successfully get the spread of the disease under control – even at the expense of taking extreme measures in violation of individual rights.

“Look at the Chinese example. China had Wuhan: There was a terrible catastrophe there and we all saw where it went,” Sadetsky said. “There was the Hubei district, a lower-level catastrophe, and there were other places in China as well. What was the difference among these centers I’ve mentioned? The timing and the level of quarantine enforcement that was implemented. That was the entire difference – when they acted, and how. That’s the whole concept here,” Sadetsky added.

In response to Ashkenazi’s question about whether these were the most important factors, Sadetsky responded: “These are the most important factors.”

Ashkenazi then asked: “When did they start it, and how effective was it?”

Sadetsky: “It’s about when you start and how strenuously you apply it, because the fact that it was all collapsing there … there was no doubt about it. Everyone will do the same. How do we see it? They will do it after the collapse and then they will…”

She was interrupted by Kish: “Lockdown?”

Sadetsky: “A lockdown, while personally monitoring people and placing a total suspension on individual freedom.”

MK Yair Lapid (Kahol Lavan) tried several times to point out that China is not a democratic country and, therefore, its situation is different to Israel’s. The health officials did not respond directly, but reiterated that both the timing and strength of the response were critical, and therefore there was scope to approve the extreme measures.

Ashkenazi noted that the extraordinary measures they were requesting would affect a great many people, because they wouldn’t only be applied to those infected but also those who were in their proximity. Bar Siman Tov confirmed this.

Sadetsy added that the special Shin Bet measures they were asking for would help “pinpoint the chain of contagion,” which was important so they could “do much more in terms of prevention and patterns of contagion.” In other words, the personal data they would receive would aid their internal research about the virus’ spread and their own decision-making process.

When Ashkenazi asked why the extent of testing for the virus could not be significantly increased, the health officials said there were people coming up negative in tests yet still spreading the disease to others. As a result, they added, there was a need for “complementary strategies” – chiefly, as much home quarantine and self-isolation as possible.

Bar Siman Tov added: “We have trouble envisaging the disappearance of this event by the summer.”

Lapid asked about the degree of cyber-readiness to prevent sensitive information about Israeli citizens being leaked. They both replied that the data would be treated as classified “medical information.”

Asked by MK Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) whether there were other Western countries that have taken such steps, Bar Siman Tov responded: “The way I read what is going to happen in Europe, this is a massive need.”

When Sa’ar tried to clarify the specific kind of methods that would be used, Ashkenazi interjected: “Due to technological capabilities we won’t go into detail about here, they would know who’s near someone [a confirmed case] everywhere.”

MK Yoav Ben Tzur (Shas) asked whether the authorities could only detect such data via smartphones. Bar Siman Tov replied, “No, any phone.”

Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri implored everyone to swiftly approve the request. If they didn’t, he said, the government would adopt it via the emergency regulations.

“You want us to approve an order we don’t know anything about?” Ashkenazi asked.

The meeting was adjourned with the understanding that the Knesset would swiftly reappoint the committee after the lawmakers were sworn in. “I discussed it with the Knesset speaker,” Ashkenazi said, referring to Yuli Edelstein (Likud).

But the committee wasn’t reestablished and the government ultimately approved the sensitive decision without any subsequent Knesset debate.

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