The High Court of Justice on Thursday heard petitions, including some via online video, against emergency regulations being enacted to control the spread of the coronavirus. These regulations allow the Shin Bet security service and the police to monitor Israelis.
The Health Ministry’s head of public services, Prof. Siegal Sadetzki, told the court her office was considering expanding surveillance by the Shin Bet significantly. Sadetzki’s statement should sound a great warning – Israel is now on a slippery slope.
Nothing was more expected than the state’s attempt to expand the use of surveillance methods. The pattern is familiar and dangerous: Start with ostensibly minimal means for a limited time, then expand the means and duration until they become permanent. Now it’s the fight against the coronavirus, tomorrow it will be the fight against crime – and finally the fight against the government’s opponents. History is paved with examples of emergency measures becoming routine.
While no democracy in the world is using those methods in its fight against the coronavirus, Israel wants to expand them. Justice Noam Sohlberg asked at the hearing: “Is it not a state of national security where the law allows the activation of the Shin Bet’s capabilities?” Justice Hanan Melcer added: “The right to life takes precedence over the right to privacy.”
These comments are extremely troubling. The High Court is supposed to be a gatekeeper, not the Shin Bet’s lawyer.
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The original sin was of course the occupation. The Shin Bet’s recklessness in the occupied territories, the methods put at its disposal and its almost unlimited powers, with no real judicial and public supervision, are the foundation on which the state now leans in seeking to move these methods into Israel proper. Appallingly, this also was expected.
Security cannot be used as a cover for every breach of privacy, and neither can public health. We must listen to the words of Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians: “It’s hard to understand the eagerness to use covert means for whose expediency there isn’t the slightest proof. The lack of transparency and professionalism undermine the public’s confidence and the public’s health.”
Now it’s the High Court’s test. If it legitimizes expanding the means of surveillance, Israelis will find faster than they imagine that they’re living in a police state where the right to privacy has become a dead letter with various excuses and pretexts.