Seth J. Frantzman

Is Israel’s coronavirus crackdown going too far?

Is Israel's coronavirus crackdown going too far?
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Hooded and masked police officers tackle a man suspected of breaking coronavirus restrictions. This was the scene in Tel Aviv earlier this week, as Israeli authorities ramp up their hard-line approach to dealing with the virus. But can such measures work? Or has Israel's approach gone too far?

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has certainly been clear that his country – no stranger to existential threats – is in a fight for its life. ‘This is not a child’s game, it is a matter of life and death,’ he said. To combat the virus, Israel has begun to use the same digital technology that it uses to outwit terrorists. Interception of telephonic data and the tracking of phones appears to be a key part of this strategy. So, too, is facial recognition and other methods that Israel leads the world in. 

Unlike some other countries caught off guard, Israel took the coronavirus threat seriously early. In February, a ban on tourists from affected Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan was initiated. At the time, South Korea and Thailand, whose citizens were also barred from Israel, protested at what seemed to be draconian measures. Now most countries are following suit and shutting off borders and halting flights. Jerusalem also pioneered an approach to containing those who had come in contact with known cases of coronavirus. The Israeli health ministry pushed guidelines that forced certain affected people to stay at home for 14 days. Now some 40,000 people in Israel are confined to their own homes. But while Israel has taken a tough approach, it has still not been spared the virus’s spread: there are at least 427 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Israel, more per capita than in the UK or US.

As the virus threat grows and measures to tackle it become ever tougher (home quarantine is now mandatory for anyone entering Israel), the number of those trying to evade these new regulations has also climbed. Police wearing white smocks and protective gear now tour the streets in an attempt to hunt down quarantine evaders and detain them. There are threats of fines and even prison for offenders. On Tuesday, a wedding in Bet Shemesh violated guidelines by having 150 guests; police detained one of the organisers.

Such incidents make for dystopian, terrifying scenes, but in the fight against this virus, normal rules – particularly in Israel – count for less. The ability to track those who ignore the regulations is a key part of a major widening of the use of Israel’s counter-terror methods. The Israel Security Agency, known locally as the Shin Bet, was authorised to use this technology for this national health emergency. Israel’s health ministry is also given access to this information, which includes details on where coronavirus carriers have been. This data is collected from mobile phones and CCTV cameras, according to media reports.

Already there has been something of a backlash but the Shin Bet has dismissed the parallel between using such tools to track terrorists and find those who may be spreading coronavirus. ‘The Shin Bet is aware this is a task that goes beyond its routine anti-terror activities,’ Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman has said. The intelligence service has promised that it won’t misuse the data and insisted that the unique methods will save lives.

But is there any oversight on the security services in its use of such technology against ordinary Israelis? Israel has, of course, just had another election and the president has tasked opposition leader Benny Gantz, a former chief with forming a new government. But the political stasis continues, and when it comes to the battle against coronavirus there appears to be few proper checks on the government’s decision to use extreme methods.

The use of such anti-terror technology to track the virus now goes hand-in-hand with draconian new guidelines to restrict movements, including telling people not to leave home except to buy food and medicine or to go to some essential jobs. Public transport must only be used for ‘necessary’ activity. No more visiting mom and pop for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

Some see this as a kind of 'Armageddon', turning Israel into a fortress like in the film World War Z. It raises concerns for people who are now stuck at home as schools have closed and many office environments are sending workers home. Even if one goes to a store to buy food they might be retroactively identified as in proximity to a virus carrier by anti-terror technology, with quarantine orders coming days later. How Israel will monitor the rapidly growing number of people in quarantine and the increasing number of coronavirus cases is unclear. Monitoring hundreds, or even thousands of people in quarantine is possible, but what about tracking tens of thousands, or even millions? Israel might be leading the world in its use of data to try and halt the spread of coronavirus, but it won't be long before the country’s security service is overwhelmed by information. What’s more, many in Israel are worried that when the threat of coronavirus is over, these draconian measures could be difficult to wrestle back from the security services.

Seth J. Frantzman is an editor at the Jerusalem Post