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Health Ministry official: New strain is 'like a new species'

Deputy AG: Shin Bet tracking ‘very problematic,’ but Omicron is an exceptional case

Raz Nizri tells Knesset panel that while tool shouldn’t be used on civilians, ‘every rule has an exception’; ministers advance law letting revived program go on past Thursday

Raz Nizri, deputy attorney general, during a House Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 21, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Raz Nizri, deputy attorney general, during a House Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 21, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s deputy attorney general said Tuesday that there were “many problematic things” about the renewed use of phone tracking by the Shin Bet security service to locate suspected cases of the new variant of the coronavirus, but added that Omicron was an “exceptional case.”

Ministers on Sunday approved the reintroduction of the Shin Bet program, after a similar plan was utilized in the early stages of the pandemic. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the program is set to expire on Thursday at midnight but will also be subject to reexamination each day. If there is a “wide breakout,” the program will be discontinued, the PMO said, without detailing what that term entails. Confirmed carriers of other strains are not being tracked, nor are those who were exposed to carriers of Omicron or any other version of the coronavirus.

Several coalition members, including four ministers, oppose the tracking, saying it violates citizens’ privacy.

On Tuesday morning, the government approved legislation that would enable the tracking to continue beyond the current Thursday deadline and under a permanent law, rather than under emergency regulations. That bill is set to go up for a Knesset vote in the coming days.

During a discussion on the new legislation at the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri said the implementation of the tracking was “very problematic.”

“In a democratic country, the Shin Bet should not be acting at all against civilians except for terror cases, but every rule has an exception, and this is the case at the moment,” he said.

“Even if emergency regulations are activated in coordination with the attorney general, they don’t replace the Knesset and that tool can’t simply be activated because you want it  to,” he added.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discusses Shin Bet phone tracking against suspected carriers of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, November 30, 2021. (Danny Shem Tov/Knesset)

During the meeting, the Health Ministry’s head of public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, laid down the worrying data from South Africa — the epicenter of the Omicron outbreak — that she said justifies the phone tracking.

“[Daily] cases went up from 200 to 2,000 in 10 days, meaning that the number is doubled every three days,” she said. “They have described incidents in which one person infected very many people, including unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals. We are hearing vaccinated people have mild symptoms, but in the meantime that’s preliminary information.”

Alroy-Preis added that early data about the effectiveness of existing vaccines against the new strain was expected on Tuesday.

“The many mutations in this variant make it very different, just like a new species,” she said. “The Shin Bet tracking is one of our tools for identifying and cutting infection chains.”

MK Gaby Lasky, of the coalition party Meretz, told Nizri that the attorney general office’s decision to okay the renewed tracking “violates a Supreme Court decision, which expressly said emergency regulations couldn’t be used anymore. I haven’t heard how the decision was made that this is indeed an emergency situation.”

Meretz MK Gaby Lasky during a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussion in Jerusalem on Shin Bet phone tracking against suspected carriers of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, November 30, 2021. (Danny Shem Tov/Knesset)

New Hope MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, also from the coalition, called the tracking of civilians “draconian.”

“What is the panic about? There’s a small number of infected people. Enacting such a law, which I view as draconian, is pointless and I don’t see a reason for the Knesset to pass laws now in a lightning process,” she said.

Last year, the Knesset passed into law a bill authorizing the Shin Bet to use cellphone data and other sensitive information to track Israelis who contracted the coronavirus and those they were in contact with.

The program faced criticism from privacy and rights groups but has been praised by officials as helping to stem the spread of the virus by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

But the reintroduction of the program is more limited in being only aimed at locating those infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

“This is not wide, blanket use for all confirmed carriers as in past waves of the pandemic,” the PMO said on Sunday.

A woman is seen speaking on her phone on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, September 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In March, the High Court had ruled that the program could only be used for those who wouldn’t cooperate with epidemiological investigations, and as a “complementary tool only,” for individual cases, as necessary.

Rights groups on Sunday said they would protest again to the top court over the reintroduction of the controversial tracking.

“This is blatant disregard for the rule of law,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in a statement, referring to the use of the country’s national emergency regulations to implement the program rather than normal legislation.

Four ministers voted against reimplementing the tracking program.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar attend a plenum session in the Knesset, on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“There’s no justification for this extreme step, which is unsustainable and disproportionate. We promised change, but how can we look our voters in the eyes when we blatantly break promise after promise to safeguard democracy,” Minister Eli Avidar (Yisrael Beytenu) said in a statement.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Education Minister Shasha-Biton and Economy Minister Orna Barbivai also voted against giving the Shin Bet permission to use the tool, along with Avidar, who is a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

While he had voted against the use of the program previously, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said in a press conference on Sunday that he voted in favor due to it being “very limited.”

“I’ve got a big problem with the use of tracking. I prefer that the Shin Bet deal with security matters and not civilian ones,” Horowitz said, though he added that in the current iteration, “the implementation of Shin Bet tracking is very limited, temporary and is subject to a lot of oversight, unlike in the past.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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