Israel's Shin Bet security service admitted it had used its cellular tracking system to send warning messages to Arab Israelis and Palestinians during the outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip and Israel in May, just one day after Israel Police admitted to the misuse of spyware against civilians.
The security service also admitted that the messages were sent to people who were not suspected of any wrongdoing and that they were inappropriately phrased, and vowed to clarify its protocols on the matter. However, the security service said it may take similar steps in the future.
During last May's flare-up, thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians and Israeli Arabs received text messages from the Shin Bet warning them to refrain from violence on the Temple Mount. The texts read: "You have been identified as someone who took part in violent acts at the al-Aqsa Mosque. We will settle the score." The message was signed "from the Israeli intelligence service," that is, the Shin Bet.
Many recipients of these messages said they were nowhere near Jerusalem or the Temple Mount, and did not participate in the violence.
- ‘We Won’t Stand by Idly in the Face of Arab Violence,’ New Shin Bet Chief Says
- Shin Bet Involvement in Israel's Fight Against Arab Crime Threatens Civil Rights
- 'The Shin Bet Breaks You. You'd Be Insane Not to Give a False Confession'
Days after the text messages were sent, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah asked the attorney general for a clarification on the text messages. "Sending texts messages to worshipers during prayer just to let them know they're under surveillance in order to threaten or deter them is illegal, which exceeds the Shin Bet's authority," The Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote in a letter sent to the attorney general.
On Wednesday, Adalah echoed its warning from May: "Sending intimidating messages to citizens and residents is illegal and fundamentally wrong. Those messages have a deterring effect on legal and legitimate actions such as participating in a demonstration or a religious event."
The two organizations claimed that the Shin Bet illicitly used this tool, which is a powerful system for identifying cellular networks in Israel. During the first coronavirus wave, the security system used the service to identify COVID patients and those who came in contact with them, despite the opposition of then-Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman.
On Tuesday, almost eight months after the complaints, the Justice Ministry responded on behalf of the Shin Bet, explaining that the aim was to "thwart illegal activity meant to harm state security." But, it admitted that the Shin Bet made an "error in the way the action was executed," in that the messages were sent to parties that were not involved in these activities. "In addition," it said, "the wording of the messages was inappropriate and did not pass the required checks."
The Justice Ministry's response was accompanied by a letter from the Shin Bet's Jerusalem District legal advisor, identified as Daniella: “Our position is that the Shin Bet has the authority to carry out these actions,” it said. “In these circumstances, there is a clear security need to express an urgent message to a very large number of people, each of whom exists a basis for suspicion that they were involved in committing violent crimes, and there is a likely possibility that they will be involved, in the immediate present, in carrying out additional such acts.”
In her letter, though, she acknowledges that the messages were also sent to people “that did not raise the aforementioned suspicions,” and that “it would have been appropriate to word them differently.” She added, “We drew conclusions from the event, and drafted protocols for how to use this plan of action,” among them strengthening quality checks.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah responded: “Even if the Shin Bet admits that it erred in the wording and scope of the messages that were sent out, the practice of sending intimidating text messages to civilian cell phones is in itself illegal and fundamentally unacceptable. Sending these sorts of messages has a chilling and deterring effect for legal and legitimate acts, such as participating in a protest or a religious event.”