Netanyahu: Ministers to approve mass surveillance to halt COVID-19 spread

PM says order to snoop on citizens with advanced technology will be in effect for 30 days; says he hopes lockdown won’t be necessary, though localized closures possible

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said cabinet ministers would on Monday night approve the use of advanced digital monitoring tools to track carriers of the coronavirus in Israel for the next 30 days.

Such tracking technologies, which in large part rely on data from cellphones, have principally been used by the Shin Bet security service in counterterrorism operations, and have raised major privacy concerns.

“These tools will help us very much in locating the virus, locating those sick and stopping the spread of the virus,” Netanyahu said in a live statement to the press in Jerusalem, as the number of infections in the country hit 298.

Saying ministers debated the issue for six hours on Sunday, and stressing that it would only be in effect for a month, he said: “We asked for strict oversight on this so that it isn’t abused.”

“Israel is a democracy — we must uphold the balance between the rights of the individuals and the public needs. And we are doing this,” he added.

By designating the move an “emergency measure,” Netanyahu was able to bypass the Knesset’s subcommittee on clandestine services, which on Monday refrained from approving a government request to approve the surveillance.

Kiryat Ye’arim (Telz Stone), with one-quarter of their residents in quarantine and 8 residents confirmed infected. March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The measure has faced criticism from human rights and privacy experts as effectively it means any person in Israel could come under surveillance by the Shin Bet, an organization with no public transparency requirements. The proposal also goes far beyond the monitoring efforts used by other countries in their fights against the coronavirus. The Shin Bet agency said it would not be used to crack down violators of quarantine.

‘We aren’t locking people in their homes’

The prime minister announced a series of other measures that would see most workers in the public and private sectors placed on leave, but stopped short of calling for a nationwide lockdown, which the Health Ministry had sought.

“We aren’t locking people in their homes. We aren’t announcing a full lockdown — and I hope we won’t get to it,” said the prime minister, adding that “we will impose local lockdowns in places where there is an outbreak.”

The public sector will reduce its workers by up to 80 percent, with the numbers varying by office, in a government decision set to be approved on Monday night, said Netanyahu. Government employees will be placed on leave at the expense of vacation days until after Passover.

Private businesses will be forced to reduce their in-office staff by 70% beginning Wednesday, he said, sending the employees to work from home or placed on leave. This does not apply to businesses with 10 workers or less.

“I know this is a difficult time. Many people will be home and not at work. Many are concerned, perhaps they won’t have enough money,” added the prime minister, saying the government would provide an “economic safety net” for all Israelis.

Essential services such as healthcare, supermarkets, pharmacies and banks are remaining open, said Netanyahu.

“At this stage, public transportation is continuing… but there will be changes,” he added, telling Israelis to consult bus and train schedules.

Taking to the podium after Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said Israel would designate NIS 5 billion to aid those affected by the virus crisis.

Israeli finance minister Moshe Kahlon speaks at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He said workers placed on leave will receive “improved” unemployment benefits, with those employed for six months now eligible for the payments (an easing of the regulation that formerly required workers to have been employed for at least a year). Small business owners will be able to defer their property tax, water, national insurance, and electricity bills if they cannot make the payments, said Kahlon.  He added that grants of up to NIS 6,000 would be made available to small businesses and freelancers.

The widened restrictions came after the Health Ministry voiced support for a lockdown of the country. Treasury officials, by contrast, were strongly opposed to a full curfew.

Speaking to Channel 12 on Monday night, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said the authorities were “trying to stay one step ahead” of the virus.

“We have a narrow window of opportunity here,” he said, noting that the pandemic swirled out of control in Italy and South Korea in a span of three days.

Israelis at the Palmachim beach, March 16, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/FLASH90)

Bar Siman-Tov said he was disturbed that Israelis were heading to beaches and parks, and condemned a wedding held in a supermarket on Sunday night.

“Stay home,” he said.

The ministry on Monday night said 298 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Israel. Four were in serious condition and nine in moderate condition.

Israel has banned gatherings of over 10 people, closed schools, forced all Israelis entering the country into a 14-day quarantine, and ordered the closure of all malls, restaurants and cafes (with takeout permitted) to contain the outbreak.

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