Netanyahu says contentious virus bill won’t let cops enter homes without warrant
Bill lets government enact new measures without Knesset okay

Netanyahu says contentious virus bill won’t let cops enter homes without warrant

With opposition slamming legislation as assault on democracy, PM decries ‘fake news,’ says balance will be kept between enforcement of COVID-19 regulations and individual liberties

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an inauguration ceremony marking the opening of a new police station in the northern Arab Israeli town of Jisr az-Zarqa, November 21, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an inauguration ceremony marking the opening of a new police station in the northern Arab Israeli town of Jisr az-Zarqa, November 21, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Following widespread public criticism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that the government would not allow police officers to enter and search homes without a warrant as part of a legislative package of emergency measures to fight the ongoing threat of the coronavirus.

According to a draft memorandum of the bill reported upon Sunday night, the government would be given special powers to deal with the coronavirus for 45 days, with the Knesset able to extend the emergency period every 30 days for a maximum 10 months.

Included in the so-called Coronavirus Law is the ability to restrict visits to private homes, permission for police to enter homes without a warrant and use force to enforce regulations, and, crucially, power for the government to decide upon new measures without Knesset approval. According to the bill, the minister in charge of administering the law would be the prime minister himself.

Speaking at a Likud faction meeting Monday, Netanyahu called reports that described some of the bill’s clauses “fake news.”

“Regarding civil rights and privacy rights, I just spoke with the public security minister and we agreed unequivocally that we will not allow police to break into citizens’ homes without a warrant,” he said.

“That won’t happen,” he added. “We will find the necessary balance between the need to enforce the quarantine requirement and the need to safeguard citizens’ privacy and civil rights.”

“We are aware that some members of the public think we intend to harm that balance; we haven’t done that so far and we will not do that in the future.”

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on May 17, 2020. (Knesset)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz similarly said earlier that the government would ensure that individual liberties were protected, and also vowed to soften certain parts of the proposed legislation.

“Yes, in case of emergency, the state must defend itself, but we will ensure civilian rights and oversight even in emergencies. Israeli democracy is stronger than the coronavirus, and so it will remain,” he said in a series of tweets largely backing the measures.

Responding to opposition criticism that the law would give the government unbridled power, Gantz said that the bill would, for the first time, introduce a proper oversight mechanism for the coronavirus regulations.

“We will administer the emergency regulations via orderly legislation, contrary to what happened in the first wave of the coronavirus when the government acted almost without oversight and restrictions,” he said in reference to a period immediately following the March elections, when the Likud party, before joining a unity government with Gantz’s Blue and White, passed a number of sweeping measures to deal with the outbreak while at the same time attempting to block the formation of Knesset committees to oversee the government.

“The new legislation will improve the current situation immeasurably,” Gantz wrote. “There will be oversight by the Knesset, government powers will be limited, and it will be clear exactly what is allowed and what is not allowed.”

Vowing to “strike a balance between emergency measures and individual rights,” Gantz said that some of the measures outlined in the draft memorandum would be amended before the legislation was passed into law. The clause allowing police to enter homes without a warrant, for example, “will be reexamined and proportionate rules will be formulated,” he said.

New Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry on May 18, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, also from Gantz’s Blue and White party, wrote on Twitter that “the authorities will be given the tools to enforce the guidelines, but no police officers will arbitrarily break into residents’ homes.”

“In the coming days, we will continue the strenuous work to ensure that the legislation is effective but proportionate,” Nissenkorn added.

Responding to reports on the bill Sunday night, opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government was trying to “sweep the measures through under the radar.”

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi likened the measures to “anti-democratic legislation we have seen introduced in Victor Orban’s Hungary. That’s where this will take us.”

Israel has taken steps in recent weeks to roll back its virus restrictions, reopening schools, synagogues, malls, restaurants and other spaces. While social distancing and hygiene guidelines remain in place, many have taken a more relaxed attitude as the virus appeared to wane, including toward a regulation requiring that masks be worn in most settings outside the home.

But a recent rise in the number of new infections has government officials warning of a new lockdown. On Sunday night, the Health Ministry said that 59 new cases had been confirmed in the previous 24 hours, up considerably from the 20 or so cases being recorded daily a week ago. Higher numbers were also recorded on Thursday and Friday.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at a press conference, May 31, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 12)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein described the increase in infections as a “very troubling” development, and warned that without the public’s help, numbers would continue to rise and Israel could swiftly return to lockdown conditions.

Israel currently has 1,994 active cases, with a majority under medical care at home and 116 in the hospital. Of those cases, 36 are in serious condition with 34 requiring mechanical ventilation. In Israel, 285 people have died of the virus since the outbreak began in the country earlier this year.

Condemning what he termed a “loosening” of Israelis’ adherence to social-distance rules, Netanyahu on Saturday said the coming days would be a “test” to see whether restrictions would need to be put back in place.

“As long as no vaccine is found for the virus, it will return and spread if we aren’t meticulous about the rules,” Netanyahu said. “If we don’t do this, there will be no choice but to return to limitations on the economy and public sphere.”

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