Attorney general defends use of surveillance tech against Palestinian protesters

Responding to watchdog, Mandelblit’s office admits problems with messages sent to those in proximity of May rioting, including Arab Israelis

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces in the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, May 10, 2021. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces in the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, May 10, 2021. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

The attorney general has upheld the Shin Bet security agency’s use of cellphone tracking technology to monitor and threaten Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site last year.

The decision, issued on Tuesday by outgoing attorney general Avichai Mandelblit just as he left office, drew harsh criticism from a civil rights group, which warned that use of the technology would have a “chilling effect” on the country’s Arab minority.

Mandelblit’s opinion was issued in response to a complaint over a series of text messages sent out last May to hundreds of Palestinians at the height of one of the city’s most turbulent periods in years. At the time, Palestinian protesters were clashing with Israeli police at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in violence that contributed to sparking an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

Using its tracking technology, the Shin Bet sent a text message to people who were determined to be in the area of the clashes and told them, “We will hold you accountable” for acts of violence.

The recipients included both Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Arab Israelis.

While some recipients had participated in the clashes, many others, such as those who lived, worked or prayed in the area, received the message for no apparent reason and said they had been surprised or scared by it.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or ACRI, filed a complaint with Mandelblit’s office, urging him to halt the use of the technology, citing the fact that it had been used on a large group of people and employed threatening language.

In its response, the attorney general’s office acknowledged problems with the message, both in its language and because the mass distribution included unintended targets. But it said the technology was a legitimate security tool and that the security service had revised its procedures to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

“After discussions with us on this subject, lessons were learned in the security agency and guidelines were formulated in various aspects, with the goal of preventing a recurrence of problems like this,” said Mandelblit’s opinion. It said the office planned no further intervention in the matter.

Then-attorney general Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

ACRI expressed disappointment with the ruling, which came on the final day of Mandelblit’s six-year term.

“They say they have the authority to continue sending these kind of texts to people,” said Gil Gan-Mor, who heads the group’s unit on human rights in the digital age. “We think differently.”

He said authorities have tools to investigate and prosecute people suspected of violence, but sending threatening messages was not the way to maintain security.

“Obviously, this will have a chilling effect, to say the least, on practicing legitimate activities, like going to a protest or going to pray somewhere,” he said. The group was studying the decision and would decide whether to file a High Court petition against it, he added.

ACRI previously filed legal challenges to the government’s use of the same Shin Bet tracking technology as a contact-tracing tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus early in the pandemic. The Supreme Court eventually restricted the use of the tool to specific cases, and studies have found that it was largely ineffective in identifying people with COVID-19.

Israeli settlers and soldiers gather at the wildcat outpost of Evyatar near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 1, 2021. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Separately, Mandelblit last month ordered a probe into allegations that the Israel Police used cellphone spyware against Israeli citizens, including those who were not suspected of any crime, and without proper judicial oversight.

The reported targets of such hacking were several mayors as well as members of their families, organizers of weekly protests against Netanyahu’s government, an associate of a senior politician, activists campaigning against LGBT pride parades and employees in governmental firms.

Though initially denying the reports, police on Tuesday admitted that “additional findings” from their own probe of the matter “change the state of affairs in certain aspects.”

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