Ministers okay limited Shin Bet tracking program in bid to head off Omicron threat

Amid opposition to controversial cellphone surveillance, including from several ministers, government says tool will only be used for carriers of variant, will end Thursday

A woman is seen speaking on her phone at Ben Gurion Airport, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
A woman is seen speaking on her phone at Ben Gurion Airport, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Ministers on Sunday approved the reintroduction of the controversial Shin Bet program to track carriers of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, after a similar plan was utilized in the early stages of the pandemic.

Confirmed carriers of other strains will not be tracked, nor will those who were exposed to carriers of Omicron or any other version of the coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement after the cabinet approved the program.

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

While the program is set to expire on Thursday at midnight, it will also be subject to reexamination each day, it added.

If there is a “wide breakout,” the program will be discontinued, the statement said, without detailing what that term entails.

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

Minister Ayelet Shaked, foreground, looks on as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on November 28, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

The program has 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.

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

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

“This is a 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.

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

Four ministers voted against reimplementing the tracking program.

“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.

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)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Education Minister Yifat 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, adding 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.”

Another new decision approved recently in light of the Omicron threat was barring foreign nationals from entering Israel for 14 days unless they receive special permission from a government panel. Israel had just reopened to foreign tourism in early November, for the first time since the start of the pandemic. That move was set to take effect at midnight Sunday.

Vaccinated Israelis — who under the existing rules had to take a coronavirus test upon landing and remain in isolation until receiving a negative result — will now be required to enter quarantine for 72 hours and take another COVID test on the third day after they arrive. Unvaccinated travelers must remain in quarantine for at least a week, and can leave isolation upon receiving a negative test result conducted on the seventh day.

Starting at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Israelis coming from high-risk “red” countries must quarantine in designated state-run hotels until they receive a negative virus test result.

Travelers are seen arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, November 1, 2021.(Tomer Neuberg/FLASH901)

The Health Ministry has confirmed one case of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant in Israel and has reported seven suspected infections, including three people who have not recently traveled abroad, raising fears of community transmission within Israel.

The confirmed case recently returned from a trip to Malawi, and four suspected cases had returned from international trips in recent days.

The person with the confirmed infection traveled on a bus from Tel Aviv to the southern city of Eilat before being diagnosed, potentially exposing fellow passengers to the variant. Contact tracers had tracked down half of the passengers by Saturday evening.

Police officers in protective gear are seen outside the home of a confirmed COVID-19 case in the city of Eilat, November 26, 2021. (Israel Police)

The Health Ministry said Sunday that the coronavirus’s basic reproduction number in Israel had decreased slightly to 1.05. Known also as the “R-number,” the figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over 1 signifies infection is expanding.

The data showed that 169 people had been diagnosed on Saturday, with the number representing 0.52% of the over 35,000 tests conducted. There were 168 hospitalized individuals, of whom 128 were in serious condition.

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