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Israel's Health Ministry Orders 400 People Into Quarantine Via SMS Texts


Israel's Health Ministry Orders 400 People Into Quarantine Via SMS Texts

The texts were sent according to phone location signals, collected through hasty emergency legislation, showing these people were in close contact with confirmed coronavirus cases

Amir Kurz, Tomer Ganon, and Omer Kabir | 14:12  19.03.2020
SMS text messages were sent to 400 people in Israel who, according to their phones’ location signals, were in close contact with confirmed coronavirus (Covid-19) cases, Israel’s Ministry of Health announced Wednesday. The texts informed these people they must enter immediate home quarantine.

The announcement followed a controversial move by Israel’s government authorizing digital surveillance of civilians in its attempt to slow down the spread of coronavirus. On the night between Monday and Tuesday, the government bypassed parliament (the Knesset) to approve new regulations giving the Israeli police and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) authority to provide the country’s health ministry with information on coronavirus patients and those who have been in their vicinity, collected through technological means, without requiring a warrent. On Tuesday, Shin Bet confirmed to Calcalist that it began tracking the movements of those diagnosed with the disease.

Coronavirus (illustration). Photo: Alex Kolomvisky Coronavirus (illustration). Photo: Alex Kolomvisky Coronavirus (illustration). Photo: Alex Kolomvisky

In its answer to an urgent petition against the new regulations, filed to Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, the Israeli government claimed Wednesday the regulations are an efficient tool for saving lives and limiting the number of infections. Appealing to the court to receive dozens, and, in the future perhaps hundreds, of warrants a day will hamper the health ministry’s efforts to use data quickly and efficiently to stop the spread of the virus, the government’s answer read.

The hearing on the petition is being held Thursday with a limitation of up to 30 people allowed inside the courtroom, including judges, lawyers, typists, and journalists.

In its answer to the court, the Knesset criticized the government’s choice to go over its head in passing the regulations. In order to do so, after a Knesset subcommittee refused to approve the regulations, the government used its authority under Israel’s state of national emergency, which was put in place in 1948 and was never canceled. The state of emergency allows the government to pass national security-related legislation valid for a period of up to three months without oversight from the Knesset. In many cases, such emergency regulations are later extended, becoming permanent laws.

The executive branch’s authority to pass laws and regulations using state of emergency laws constitutes a hard blow to democratic principles, especially the separation of powers, the Knesset wrote. “Using state of emergency laws should be a last resort and as such, whenever possible, regular legislation should be preferred,” the Knesset’s answer read.
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