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Israel: Ministers unanimously back phone-tracking bill opposed by Shin Bet

Ministers on Wednesday unanimously threw their support behind controversial legislation allowing the Shin Bet security service to track civilians’ phones in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The bill approved by the cabinet — which is opposed by Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman — could be introduced to the Knesset plenum for its first vote as early as Wednesday afternoon, according to several Hebrew media reports.

Some ministers had initially opposed the measure, which is being championed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, because of privacy concerns. However, ministers were reportedly swayed by rising infection numbers, which are on pace to overtake the height of the first wave of the virus in a matter of days.

The legislation advanced after the centrist Blue and White party withdrew its objections to its passage, reports said.

The Shin Bet program — which used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them — ended earlier this month, nearly three months after it began.

The program, usually reserved for counterterrorism operations, had been subject to Knesset oversight, but the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law — instead of a temporary emergency regulation — to give the Shin Bet permission to use these tools. Ministers decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate.

The head of the Shin Bet has opposed legislation approving Shin Bet’s role in the program, according to leaks from the high-level cabinet forum dealing with the pandemic response. He reportedly believes a private firm should be given the power instead.

Edelstein on Sunday night said it was “preferable that the information remain in the hands of the Shin Bet rather than a private company, who only the devil knows what its interests are.”

The Health Ministry on Wednesday morning announced that 420 cases of coronavirus had been diagnosed in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total confirmed cases to 21,666 and continuing the surge seen in recent days.

The ministry said that 45 people were in serious condition, an increase of five since Tuesday, and that 28 of them were on ventilators [with overall 308 deads from the beginning of the pandemic].

There were 44 in moderate condition of the 5,460 active COVID-19 cases in the country, it said.

The ministry said 19,188 tests were carried out on Tuesday, the highest daily number, with a 2.3 percent positive rate.

Wednesday’s virus numbers were released hours after a partial lockdown went into effect on Elad, an ultra-Orthodox town in central Israel, and five predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the northern city of Tiberias. They will remain in place for a week in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.

Netanyahu is expected to also hold discussions Wednesday on whether to declare other areas as restricted zones.

Ministers were still debating whether to introduce restrictions in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, amid a sharp rise of coronavirus infections there, according to Channel 12 news. There are particular concerns about the beachfront city, which has a relatively older population in comparison with other outbreak areas.

The network reported Wednesday that a supermarket in the city, “Super Dosh,” appeared to be at the center of an outbreak with 20 diagnosed cases traced to it.

A military task force warned Wednesday that infection rates were “very high” in ultra-Orthodox communities in comparison to the rest of the country, with around 14 percent of all new infections this week diagnosed in just five locations. It pointed to the dense living conditions, difficulties in isolating patients and close connections between different communities around the country as contributing to the problem.

The task force named the predominantly ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit and Beit Shemesh as cities with concerning infection rates, as well as ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the cities of Jerusalem, Ashdod, Netanya and Safed, along with Elad and the Tiberias neighborhoods that were locked down.

In addition, the southern town of Rahat and central city of Kfar Saba were both said to be showing fast rates of growth in the number of cases.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Wednesday he signed an order authorizing the emergency call-up of 250 IDF reservists, mainly in the Home Front Command, to assist “as needed and in line with developments in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The sharp climb in the number of cases has stoked fears of a second virus wave and led the Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

A report by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center on Tuesday warned that Israel could see a doubling in the number of active coronavirus cases within a week.

Header: Jerusalemites wearing face masks on June 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Source: TOI