JERUSALEM - A second wave of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is hitting Israel hard, with thousands of new cases diagnosed every day. Many of those cases are discovered by the Shin Bet security services, which is tracking all Israelis’ cellphones to see who has come into contact with someone diagnosed with the coronavirus. While some in Israel worry about privacy issues, most people say they are willing to give up some privacy in their efforts to fight the pandemic.

For some Israelis, going into quarantine has become a new way of life. Justine Zwerling is the Israeli representative for the London stock exchange.

“I’ve been, I think, in quarantine about four or five times, I’m starting to lose count. The first time is when I came back from the U.K. because obviously the airways closed, so I came back on almost the last flight from the U.K., so I went into isolation then, and then my husband came back on the second-to-last flight from the U.S., so then we were in isolation again, and then the whole country went into isolation, and then with the children, we were in isolation a couple of times,” she said.

While spending two weeks in isolation each time wasn’t easy, she has no problem with the Israeli Shin Bet security service tracking her cellphone.

Military personnel at the Israeli Defence Force Corona Task Force Headquarters conduct epidemiological investigations as part of the army's effort to trace chains of infection to curb the spread of the COVID-19 in Ramle, Sept. 17, 2020.

The Shin Bet has been doing the tracking since the beginning of the pandemic, and the Knesset has renewed their mandate several times. Opposition Knesset member Merav Michaeli said the Shin Bet should focus on fighting terrorism instead of following innocent Israelis.

“Obviously, the Shin Bet is not the body that should be surveiling civilians. It’s so obvious that the Shin Bet itself practically begged the government not to give him this task, because it’s not only bad for Israeli democracy but it’s also bad for the Shin Bet,” said Michaeli.

At the same time, she said she understands why most Israelis are not protesting this.

“Israelis, the majority of them, go through an army service. We are living and have been living under the concept of an existential threat and that we have to pay a price for our security. Israelis were the first to go through the routine of having their bags checked at the entrance, any entrance to a public space. So for Israelis, it’s less inconceivable for them that the secret service is so deeply involved in their lives,” she said.

Medical professionals in full protective equipment tend to an elderly man on a ventilator in the critical care coronavirus unit at Sheba Medical center in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sept. 30, 2020.

Some analysts who focus on privacy issues say that putting the Shin Bet in charge is a violation of the right to privacy. Tehilla Shwartz Altschuler is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“Using a secret service in order to conduct contact tracing, which means knowing the location, the history of the phone calls, the history of text messages, the history of web surfing of all the citizens of Israel who are not suspicious or suspected of anything, that just might be sick. Doing this is a tremendous violation of human rights in Israel, I would say the most extensive one since the foundation of this country,” said Altschuler.

For the past three months, there have been large protests in Israel against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his handling of the pandemic. But as the number of positive cases rise in Israel, most people are far more worried about the pandemic than any possible violation of privacy.

 

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