Editorial

The Coronavirus Fight in Israel Is Threatening Individual Rights

Paramedics en route to perform a coronavirus test in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

As it tries to battle the spread of the new coronavirus in the midst of a political crisis, Israel faces a concrete challenge: protecting the fundamental principles of democracy, including the individual rights of its citizens.

The head of the transitional government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who lost to Benny Gantz the mandate to try to form the next government – daily introduces extreme emergency measures. He is doing so without the proper oversight of the legislative and judicial branches, which are hobbled by the new directives.

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Thus, for example, Netanyahu declared Saturday night on live TV that he planned to use “digital measures for the war on terror, that until today I’ve refrained from using among the civilian population.” He added, “They aren’t simple; they involve a degree of violating the privacy of those people, so we can examine with whom they came into contact when they were sick, what came before and what came after.”

He was referring to special surveillance measures such as cellphone geolocation and the review of credit card data to track the movements of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus as well as people who may have been near them when they were contagious, in order to follow the path of infection. The agency that was put in charge of implementing this dramatic measure is the Shin Bet security service. Despite the sensitivity involved in granting anyone the right to conduct surveillance of private citizens, the Privacy Protection Authority was not party to the discussions despite its request.

In the wake of harsh public criticism of the move, cabinet ministers made the proposal slightly more restrictive. They authorized the Shin Bet to track the cellphone location of coronavirus patients and anyone who was in their proximity in the 14 days preceding their diagnosis, solely in order to instruct them, by text message, to self-quarantine. It was also decided that the data could not be used for any other purpose, and must be deleted after 30 days. Even so, there are still serious problems with the new regulations – for example, that this geolocation is conducted without a court order.

In a last-minute move before the new Knesset was sworn in, the cabinet on Monday tried to get these regulations approved by the Knesset subcommittee for intelligence and secret services. But the subcommittee’s chairman, Gabi Ashkenazi, refused the cabinet’s request to pass the measures quickly, without a debate, and for that he deserves praise.

After Ashkenazi’s refusal to approve the draconian measures without a debate, Netanyahu decided to bypass the Knesset and pass the regulations notwithstanding, in the dead of night, using emergency regulations — which are fundamentally undemocratic and the use of which must be limited.

This a worrisome step, which raises concerns of grave harm to individual rights. The state should not determine the locations of law-abiding citizens, whose only crime is to be infected by the coronavirus. No one can guarantee that their location data will not be leaked, as has happened to other types of data held by the government. In emergency situations, governments have an even greater responsibility than usual not to violate the checks and balances that are the foundation of the democratic system.

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