Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet

Israel revives limited tracking of COVID-19 patients to stave off Omicron spread

Ministers vote by large majority to bring back controversial cellphone surveillance of some confirmed carriers, sparking heated argument between cabinet minister Eli Avidar and Prime Minister Bennett

Yuval Karni |
Published: 11.28.21, 17:48
The Israeli government voted on Sunday to bring back the emergency use of cell phone tracking for those who have tested positive for the Omicron coronavirus variant by the Shin Bet domestic security service, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement on Sunday.
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  • However, unlike previous times the tool was in use, it will be limited only to those who have tested positive for the new strain as opposed to every single confirmed virus case.
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    נפתלי בנט בקבינט הקורונה
    נפתלי בנט בקבינט הקורונה
    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet
    (Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
    Israel has used the practice of tracking confirmed COVID-19 patients in the early days of its coronavirus outbreak last year, insisting it was a necessary measure to keep track of the spread of infection.
    Rights groups, meanwhile, argued the measure is unconstitutional and blatantly encroaches on the civil rights and liberties of citizens.
    The statement from Bennett's office further stated that the Shin Bet will not be involved in enforcing quarantine rules on those who have tested positive for Omicron, which has been classified as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization and is believed to be more transmissible and better adept at evading vaccine protection that its predecessors.
    The program is set to expire on December 2 at midnight but will also be reevaluated each day. The program will also be terminated in case of a "wide breakout" without further elaborating on the meaning of the term.
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    מחסומים בת ים
    מחסומים בת ים
    Police officer inspects passing vehicles at a checkpoint in Bat Yam during lockdown, February 25, 2021
    (Photo: Kobi Koanks)
    Bennett's office noted that there are several restraints in place on the use of the tool and that the move is coordinated with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
    The decision to reinstate the long-defunct policy encountered stiff opposition from some cabinet ministers. Ministers Gideon Sa'ar, Yifat Shasha-Biton, Orna Barbivai and Eli Avidar voted against reviving GPS tracking of some coronavirus carriers, with the latter getting into a heated argument with Bennett.
    Avidar called Shin Bet tracking a "mad red line" and accused the agency's director Ronen Bar of “falling in love with this tool.”
    Others in cabinet members reportedly jumped in Bar's defense, blasting Avidar for his tone and tenor, with Bennett reportedly exclaiming at him "you will not discredit the head of the Shin Bet, who does an excellent job. Who do you think you are?"
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    אלי אבידר, נפתלי בנט בישיבת הממשלה
    אלי אבידר, נפתלי בנט בישיבת הממשלה
    Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and cabinet minister Eli Avidar
    (Photo: Mark Israel Salem)
    Avidar, a vociferous critic of the previous government's coronavirus response and a once-ardent vaccination skeptic, urged his fellow ministers before the cabinet meeting to join him in opposition of the program.
    "This government cannot rubber-stamp the maladies of the previous government. I expect all those who opposed it back then to vote against it today. Shin Bet tracking is a detriment to democracy," he said.
    Israel on Saturday voted to ban the entry of foreigners from all countries in an effort to contain to head off the Omicron threat.
    The Association for Civil Rights in Israel denounced the government's decision as an "unfortunate and illegal one" which goes against a High Court ruling from last March.
    The group noted that epidemiological investigations have so far been found to be more effective and accurate than Shin Bet cell phone tracking.
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