'Quiet, We’re Sanitizing:' Security Agencies Tightening Grip on Israeli Lives

Netanyahu's government, which officially lost its political mandate is nevertheless amassing for itself broad authority in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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‏An Israeli firefighter sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus in Modi'in, Israel, March 17, 2020.
‏An Israeli firefighter sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus in Modi'in, Israel, March 17, 2020. Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

At 1:30 A.M. Tuesday, in a lightning move carried out by phone, the cabinet of the transitional government approved the most draconian regulations in Israeli history for the mass-scale tracking of the movements of law-abiding citizens, by means that until now were reserved primarily for policing the population on the other side of the Green Line.

The Netanyahu government, which officially lost its political mandate but is nevertheless amassing for itself broad authority in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, decided to throw off entirely the mechanisms of parliamentary oversight that still remained – i.e., the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – and allow the gathering of coronavirus patients’ personal data.

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It was done after the committee chairman, MK Gabi Ashkenazi of Kahol Lavan, dared forgo the prestigious role of rubber stamp and instead demanded that at the very least, a proper discussion of the issue be held prior to the regulations’ approval.

The cabinet also ignored the comments of the committee’s legal advisers, who despite the time pressure managed to put together a well-reasoned opinion on the draft proposal – including numerous warnings about its contradictions and legal difficulties – only to see it disregarded.

And so in the dead of night, approval was issued for the collection, in wholesale amounts, of the cellular geolocation data and additional “technological information” of citizens, without the parliamentary oversight that the Justice Ministry had explicitly promised the public.

To put out the fire, the government’s liberal protective suit, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, was dispatched to explain to the media that the regulations will be returned to the Knesset committee for examination. Undoubtedly an effective step, after they were approved in any case.

Throughout this “lightning round” approval process, with the exception of a few vague sentences by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concerning “special digital measures,” no one gave the public a detailed picture of the plans and their implications. Only after the regulations themselves were entered into the official record – before their approval they were concealed by the authorities as classified – did the dimensions of the swindle become clear: Two separate types of regulations were approved, in effect separately, one for the Israel Police and one for the Shin Bet security service.

The police were given unprecedented license to collect geolocation data, without a judge’s warrant, for anyone merely suspected of having the coronavirus. The Shin Bet, which has no authority to intervene in a public health crisis, received the rare authority to gather any “technological information” about citizens, except for the actual content of phone conversations. In other words, not necessarily only location data.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a press conference March 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

This could, for example, include the people on one’s contact list, or with whom one corresponds and when, via every medium of communication. These two separate regulations can be extended repeatedly, as needed – or desired. One way or another, however, they will make their way to the Knesset in three months’ time. If by that time there is a functioning legislature.

As in the history books, most of the public – terrified, blackmailed emotionally and their lives disrupted – isn’t even disturbed by this violation of fundamental democratic principles. The main thing is to defeat the “invisible enemy,” as Netanyahu called the coronavirus. But history has also shown that giving nearly unlimited instruments to a nearly unlimited government under the cover of panic only leads to more and more such measures, which will also be done in the dark, with subterfuge.

Many people believe that if they have nothing to hide, privacy isn’t important. This is like saying that if one has nothing to say, they don’t need the right to freedom of expression.

Of course the pandemic is real and dangerous, and the public must be protected from it, in part through extraordinary measures. But there is a broad range of possibilities between going 1 kilometer per hour and 100, and for now there is no one to press the brakes and introduce some balance.

The rest of the slide down this slippery slope is already in view: Under cover of the new, unofficial national anthem, “Quiet, We’re Sanitizing” (instead of the now-nostalgic “Quiet, We’re Shooting”) there will be many more takeovers by the security agencies of our individual rights.

For example, the police just created a special task force, one that includes police officers and Border Police combat troops, to enforce the Health Ministry directives. Among the scenarios for which the task force trained this week: dealing with violations of quarantine or lockdown. Are there any Israelis who aren’t familiar with the usual deployment of Border Police, and what will happen if, after more than 50 years of enforcing the occupation, they are suddenly assigned to enforce a lockdown on the streets of Tel Aviv?

The facilities in which people with mild cases of COVID-19 are to be placed will also be operated by the army, under Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who for some reason decided independently to head medical projects that should have been reserved for the Health Ministry and not the Defense Ministry. We’re talking about hotels, but under military guard.

And that’s only the beginning. Under the governmental contingency to declare a true emergency – a step that is not too far away – the army would be given the reins of the entire country. In natural-born militaristic Israel, the army is sometimes seen as more credible and more effective than other state authorities, certainly more than the political leadership.

But the inherent danger in giving the army broad powers over civilians is enormous. For the first time, Israeli citizens could find themselves experiencing a bit of what the Palestinians have been undergoing for years. All, of course, for the sake of the nation’s welfare. Just like in all the other situations that went wrong.

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