Gantz urges Knesset committees be set up fast, to oversee digital monitoring

Gantz urges Knesset committees be set up fast, to oversee digital monitoring

Blue and White leaders says coronavirus outbreak should not be used by government to apply restrictions as ‘a power grab and without supervision’

Illustrative: Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabia on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabia on March 7 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz demanded Tuesday that the appropriate Knesset committees be set up immediately to oversee government decisions in the fight against coronavirus.

“We are in an exceptional period where, unfortunately, it is necessary to take exceptional measures to save lives,” Gantz wrote on Twitter. “However, it is forbidden to do so as a power grab and without supervision.”

Earlier Israel’s caretaker government amended and unanimously approved a measure allowing security services to deploy advanced digital monitoring tools in an effort track carriers of the coronavirus, removing many of the safeguards and oversights that officials had said would be put into place to address widespread privacy concerns about the initiative.

“Blue and White will insist that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as a special committee on the coronavirus, the Finance Committee and other committees, be set up today to monitor the processes and approve required regulations at this time,” said Gantz, who on Monday was charged by President Reuven Rivilin with the task of forming a government following the elections earlier in the month.

“The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee must receive all the information about the surveillance procedures approved today. That’s the way it is in a democracy,” he added.

“We will not allow the state to run without a functioning Knesset during an emergency,” wrote Gantz, who is seeking to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

MK Gabi Ashkenazi of Gantz’s Blue and White party, who chairs the committee, denounced the government for moving ahead with the measure without approval from the committee, which had met the day before to review the issue but did not complete its discussion or take a vote.

Blue and White party member MK Gabi Ashkenazi speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“It is unacceptable to approve the use of such a measure in this way, with no parliamentary or public oversight,” he said.

Ashkenazi, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, indicated the committee would have continued discussing the matter on Tuesday had the government not cut it out of the process.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit responded to the allegations, saying that the move to bypass the committee was necessary as the formation of the new Knesset and its committees — following this month’s election — was delaying the process.

The measure allows the Shin Bet to use phone data — notably which cell towers the device is connected to — in order to track the movements made by those found to be carriers of the coronavirus in order to see with whom they had interacted in the days and weeks before they were tested in order to place those people in quarantine.

The Shin Bet will relay the information to the Health Ministry, which will send a message to those who were within two meters (6.6 feet) of the infected person for 10 minutes or more, telling them to go into quarantine.

Until now, health authorities have relied primarily on interviews with patients in which they detail where they’d been and with whom they’d met in the weeks preceding their diagnosis.

The concern in the government that prompted the dramatic proposal is that as the number of people infected with the virus rises, it will eventually become impossible to interview everyone individually. By using an automated system, the issue is avoided.

As of Tuesday morning there were 304 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Tens of thousands more are in self-quarantine for 14 days on suspicion they may have been exposed to the virus by those who are infected.

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