Shin Bet can keep tracking coronavirus patients, Knesset committee rules

Knesset committee approves Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients for an additional 5 days, and the extension can be continued further if the legislative process is initiated.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

The Knesset Intelligence and Secret Services Subcommittee on Thursday approved an extension of Shin Bet surveillance and tracking of coronavirus patients until Tuesday.

The five-day extension was less than the week requested by the Ministry of Health and can be extended further if the Knesset moves to enshrine new powers for the Shin Bet in legislation.

The decision comes on the heels of a Supreme Court order, mandating that the government suspend the program until the Knesset passes legislation granting these specific surveillance powers to the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold a hearing on this issue this Sunday.

At the end of Thursday’s hearing MK Gabi Ashkenazi, chairman of the committee, decided to approve the government’s request only until Tuesday, referencing the Supreme Court order.

“If on Sunday, the government decides that it is not moving forward with legislation, then the decision will expire. If the government wants to continue the program and pursue legislation, it will come to us on Tuesday and we will decide how long to extend it,” said Ashkenazi.

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“I recommend increasing the epidemiological investigations and tests, as we understand that there is a risk, but we will have to live with this coronavirus routine for the coming year, and therefore it is important to increase the epidemiological investigations and explore other technological alternatives.”

The Ministry of Health’s Head of Public Health Services, Professor Sigal Sadetsky, spoke during Thursday’s hearing in favor of Shin Bet tracking. “It is quite clear to us that without the use of this tool, we will lose a lot of quarantines and a lot of patients,” she said. “We need this information in order to open the economy.”

MK Ashkenazi asked about the falling rates of new infections and Prof. Sadetsky answered, “We record between 170 to 180 new infections daily. But we need to look at the big picture.”

“As infections fall and there are no new imported cases from abroad, you must understand that we need this ‘tweezers’ approach. Most of the exit strategy is built on this. After we have opened so much, we will begin to see infections spread in communities again. This is exactly the time we will have to locate each individual case and its contacts.”

During the hearing, Deputy Attorney General Raz Nazri asked the committee to approve the continuation of the Shin Bet tracking for another week. He said, “The Supreme Court ruled that if the government wants to continue with the tracking, it should be done by legislation, and if we want to extend in the meantime, a legislative process should be initiated. There is no chance of passing legislation in a week.”

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“We are asking for a week because this week, a meeting should be held by the Prime Minister, relevant ministers and security services to decide whether to initiate legislation or not. At this moment, no decision has been made as to whether to start the legislative process or not… If we don’t legislate, the tracking will certainly be stopped immediately. ”

In a High Court ruling on Sunday, Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut said, “We must not let the exceptional circumstances we are dealing with these days put us on a slippery slope, in terms of normalizing the use of intrusive and exceptional means.”

The court ruled that as of April 30th, “The Shin Bet cannot continue to manage the coronavirus outbreak through the mechanism set forth in Section 7 (b) (6) of the Shin Bet Law. If the state wishes to continue to use the means currently utilized by the Shin Bet, it must act to legitimize such action in legislation.”

“If a legislative proceeding is initiated, the validity of the extension decision may be continued for an additional short period, not exceeding a few weeks, to enable the completion of this procedure.”