Israeli high court limits surveillance of coronavirus patients

Medical workers disinfecting market

Palestinian workers disinfect markets in Gaza City on 19 March as a preventive measure amid fears of the spread of the novel coronavirus that has caused a global pandemic. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to rise, Israel and the occupied West Bank inch closer to a full lockdown.

As of this writing, more than 700 Israelis reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in addition to 48 confirmed cases in the occupied West Bank.

There are still no confirmed cases in the Gaza Strip, which has been largely isolated from the world for more than a decade as a result of an Israeli blockade.

As of 18 March, the World Health Organization says the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the wider region, is very high.

Israeli caretaker prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Thursday that lockdown measures will be legally binding beginning Friday as Israel grapples to contain the novel coronavirus.

Israeli police, with the help of the military, will have the authority to arrest or penalize those who defy government orders to stay at home, with exceptions for fetching food, medicine or seeking medical treatment.

Halt on surveillance

Meanwhile, Israel’s high court issued a temporary injunction on Thursday stopping Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet, from using a mobile phone geolocator and other surveillance technologies to track the cellphones of coronavirus patients and potential patients.

Netanyahu had approved the measure on Wednesday in a stated bid to prevent the spread of the virus, bypassing the necessary approval from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

The court is giving the government until Tuesday to form a parliamentary committee that would oversee the surveillance operation. If it doesn’t, the court will ban the program.

The court’s decision came after it heard a petition submitted by Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, and the Joint List, a coalition of Palestinian parties in Israel, calling on Israel’s attorney general to freeze the measure.

The group applauded the high court’s decision on Thursday, but underscored that the danger lies in the invasive surveillance than the overseeing body.

“Even parliamentary oversight cannot legitimize such a serious violation of human rights,” Adalah stated.

“Public health emergencies must not be exploited to grant additional powers to the Shin Bet security services and the Israeli police.”

Hundreds of Israelis on Thursday had protested Netanyahu’s attempts at mass surveillance and court shutdowns.

Wrong kits

Meanwhile, the Mossad, Israel’s notorious spy agency, managed to purchase 100,000 coronavirus testing kits missing key swabs, according to the Israeli health ministry.

It is unclear from where the tests originated, but Israeli journalist Barak Ravid said they were bought “from two countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.”

No cases in Gaza

COVID-19 cases haven’t yet been reported in the Gaza Strip, but preparations are underway in case of an outbreak. If the virus reaches the territory, its impact “could be catastrophic,” according to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Israel imposes a deadly 13-year-old siege on the two million Palestinians living in the Strip, half of them children.

Israel is now further tightening restrictions on travel through the Erez checkpoint, the only crossing for people between Gaza and Israel. Exits from Gaza and into Israel is limited to mostly medical cases.

Some designated others may still apply for exit permits with Israeli authorities, the human rights group Gisha stated on Wednesday.

Movement through Erez was already limited earlier this month for the Jewish holiday of Purim, but was tightened further to fight the global pandemic.

Travel through the Rafah crossing, the sole entry and exit point for the vast majority of Gaza residents to the outside world, is also being limited “to return of residents to the Strip and exit of urgent humanitarian cases,” Gisha stated.

Kerem Shalom checkpoint, the only place Israel allows goods in and out of Gaza, is still operating.

Since 15 March, everyone entering Gaza has been quarantined in three different schools in the south, where conditions are less than optimal, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR).

“Each classroom is filled by a group of 10, without beds or covers,” PCHR said.

“Bathrooms are commonly used, unhygienic and lack cleaning and sterilizing materials; additionally, water supply is inconsistent and is cut for several hours.”

PCHR added that some of those quarantined also require medical attention.

Medical Aid for Palestinians is donating hygiene kits – enough for 800-1200 individuals – to be used by quarantined Palestinians. Hundreds more are expected to quarantine upon arrival from the Rafah crossing in the coming days.

In the past couple of weeks, COGAT – the bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation – said it delivered hundreds of testing kits to the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian workers and prisoners

Palestinians working in Israeli settlements, meanwhile, are defying orders to cease work.

“We have rent, we have expenses, we have lots of things,” one construction worker told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Israel is automatically renewing residency permits for Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza working in Israel, but those who return to their homes will reportedly not be allowed back in Israel.

Israel is also failing to provide Palestinian prisoners in its jails with adequate hygienic materials, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club.

Israeli prison authorities withdrew some 140 items from prison canteens, including cleaning and sanitizing materials.

Withdrawn items include fresh and frozen vegetables, meat, fish, oil and herbs that are often substituted for medicines.

“The prison administration is trying to exploit the current circumstance in light of the spread of the coronavirus to impose more punitive measures against the prisoners,” the prisoners club stated.

“At the moment, while the world is suffering from the pandemic, COVID-19, Palestinian prisoners are still suffering medical negligence,” prisoners rights group Addameer stated.

Four Palestinian detainees in Megiddo prison in northern Israel were reportedly put in isolation after coming into contact with an Israeli officer infected with the virus.

Israel suspended family visitations to Palestinian prisoners to curb the spread of the virus, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Human Rights Watch has recommended that governments reduce their prison populations as much as possible during the outbreak through early-releases of “low-risk” detainees.

“Detained individuals at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for similar release with regard to whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health,” Human Rights Watch stated.

Child prisoners

Defense for Children International - Palestine is calling on Israel to release all Palestinian child detainees in its prisons in light of the global pandemic.

“Palestinian children imprisoned by Israeli authorities live in close proximity to each other, often in compromised sanitary conditions, with limited access to resources to maintain minimum hygiene routines,” DCIP said.

There are currently 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, 180 of them children.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.