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Stop Digital Tracking of Coronavirus Patients by Israel's Security Service

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a protective mask as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wears a protective mask as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem, July 5, 2020.Credit: AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis continues to be a resounding failure. Last Wednesday, the Knesset passed temporary legislation enabling the Health Ministry to seek the Shin Bet security service’s help in identifying people who had contact with coronavirus patients. The day after the law passed, the ministry began sending messages to tens of thousands of people telling them to quarantine because they were near a confirmed coronavirus patient. But some of those people say they were at home at the time in question and didn’t have contact with anyone.

Moreover, it turns out that the Health Ministry failed to prepare properly for the resumption of cellphone tracking. As a result, many people who were told to quarantine due to a mistake and wanted to challenge the order found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to reach the ministry. Even worse, they discovered that the criteria for appealing the order were extremely narrow, even though the law says anyone who receives a quarantine message is entitled to ask the ministry to “reconsider the data,” and even though the ministry is required by law to respond to such requests within three days.

LISTEN: Bibi's bonanza, arresting activists and the death of God TVCredit: Haaretz

Smugness and arrogance and, as a result, an unchecked return to normal life has made Israel vulnerable to a second wave of the coronavirus at a time when our economic batteries are on empty and the country wasn’t properly prepared to handle another outbreak. As in the first outbreak, this time, too, Netanyahu has insisted on handling the crisis in a centralized fashion, via hasty cabinet meetings, while lionizing himself on television. This is in stark contrast to properly run countries, which engaged in an orderly and transparent decision-making process and are currently in much better shape than Israel.

To cover up their failures, Netanyahu and his government are seeking shortcuts by employing controversial tactics. Israel has been revealed in all its civic nakedness, and for lack of other options, it is asking the security services to solve its problems for it. Yet not only has the state given the Shin Bet legal access to the cellphones of all its citizens and allowed it to employ the same tools it uses to fight our enemies, but it turns out these tools are being used to send “innocent” people into quarantine.

The coronavirus is a civilian crisis, and the Shin Bet should be left out of it. That’s all the more true when the Health Ministry isn’t prepared to make use of the Shin Bet’s assistance in compliance with the terms set by the law.

Two months ago, Netanyahu boasted about all the leaders of European countries who were calling him “to learn about what we’re doing to continue our success.” Perhaps it’s now time for Netanyahu to call them and ask what Israel can learn from them about managing the coronavirus crisis.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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