Netanyahu consolidates control amid pandemic

Benjamin Netanyahu announces new coronavirus measures at his Jerusalem office on 14 March.

Gali Tibbon AFP

Lockdowns, travel bans and the shuttering of businesses are among the unprecedented restrictions governments are imposing worldwide in an effort to hamper the spread of a highly contagious new coronavirus.

But the real danger posed by the coronavirus must not be used to justify invasive surveillance that violates the right to privacy, civil liberties and human rights groups say.

A massive and hitherto unreported data collection scheme employed by Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet, was made public in recent days as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved its use to stymie the spread of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu bypassed Israel’s parliament to approve emergency measures allowing the Shin Bet to use mobile phone geolocation and other advanced surveillance technologies to track people who have violated quarantine orders and alert those who have been in their vicinity.

The directive would allow for the use of the data for 30 days.

The New York Times reported that the data in question has been secretly gathered for decades under the guise of combating terror.

“The existence of the data trove and the legislative framework under which it is amassed and used have not previously been reported,” the paper stated.

The New York Times added that the Shin Bet “has been quietly but routinely collecting cellphone metadata since at least 2002.”

The spy agency has not “disclosed details about what information it collects, how that data is safeguarded, whether or when any of it is destroyed or deleted, who has access to it and under what conditions, or how it is used.”

“Vast range of metadata”

Israeli prime ministers have required cellphone companies to transfer to the Shin Bet “a vast range of metadata about their subscribers,” according to the Times.

7amleh, a group dedicated to upholding the digital rights of Palestinians, said that such round-the-clock monitoring and tracking “is a violation of people’s right to privacy.”

The group added that Israel has long used the pretext of security to justify the use of surveillance technologies to track, monitor and control Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“This shows how oppressive policies and practices developed and used in contexts of occupation, also end up being used by the occupying power against its own citizens,” 7amleh added.

Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, called on Israel’s attorney general to freeze the implementation of the emergency regulations.

“The government cannot bypass the legislature and hide behind a general state of emergency to commit such extreme human rights violations,” Adalah stated.

Ayman Odeh, chair of the Joint List bloc in Israel’s parliament, said “We know that what is called ‘temporary’ always turns into permanent, so we must immediately halt spying on citizens.”

Human rights advocates in Israel took to Twitter to voice their concerns:

Chemi Shalev, a correspondent for the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, accused Netanyahu of exploiting the coronavirus crisis to consolidate his authoritarian control.

Israel’s justice minister, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, shut down the judiciary days before the prime minister’s corruption trial was due to begin.

Netanyahu has also moved to block the formation of Israel’s new parliament.

According to Shalev, Netanyahu compelled the speaker of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, “to subvert the outcome of this month’s elections by preventing the newly constituted Knesset from nominating a new speaker in his stead.”

Racism

Netanyahu has also said in recent days that a parliamentary alliance between his rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White bloc and the Joint List, a coalition of Palestinian parties in Israel, would be a “disaster” or “danger” to the country.

The prime minister said on Sunday that “Gantz is galloping toward a minority government that’s dependent on Balad, Heba Yazbak and supporters of terror, rather than join a national emergency government that will save lives.”

Yazbak is a member of the Knesset belonging to the Balad party, on the Joint List, who Israel’s Central Election Committee unsuccessfully sought to disqualify from the last election.

The campaign to disqualify Yazbak focused on statements she made on social media paying tribute to a Lebanese fighter long held prisoner by Israel. Her detractors also pointed to a post in which she celebrated the release of Ameer Makhoul from Israeli prison last year.

Makhoul, a Palestinian civil society leader in Israel, was sentenced to several years in prison on security charges based on a confession that his lawyers and family have said was obtained under circumstances of torture.

Palestinians in Israel make up some 20 percent of the population and are among those on the front lines in the country’s hospitals. Nearly every one in five physicians in Israel, and one-quarter of its nurses and half of its pharmacists, are of Palestinian origin.

Israel inched closer towards a total lockdown as it reports 337 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has reported 41 confirmed cases. The health ministry in Gaza continues to report zero confirmed cases.

While Israel has not yet reported any fatalities, its health minister warned on Tuesday that “we could have hundreds of people dying from the disease.”

Neighboring Egypt reported two more deaths in the country on Tuesday, bringing its total number of fatalities thus far to six. Nearly 200 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in that country.

Jordan’s King Abdullah meanwhile approved an emergency law that gives sweeping powers to enforce curfews, close businesses and impose movement restrictions.

Thirty-four confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Jordan, with no deaths.

All Jordanian citizens are ordered to stay in their homes barring emergencies beginning Wednesday.

The World Health Organization has recorded nearly 185,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Tuesday, more than 7,500 of them fatal.

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Governments which have been conducting clandestine programs of mass surveillance against their citizens are emboldened by this public health crisis to acknowledge heretofore secret operations. Doing so under cover of the present emergency is entirely in keeping with the mentality of our respective states. As well, new measures are being introduced with no pretense as to democratic review. Governments which have shown themselves woefully inadequate, even indifferent in safeguarding public health, now step forward with enhanced powers of social and political control over their populations. We are told these new powers will be in place for the duration of the emergency, with the implication that their force will last only until the crisis is past. Well, does anyone recall the creation of new agencies in the wake of the Sept 11 atrocities? None have been dissolved. Quite the reverse. They've gone on expanding and generating further means of authoritarian control since their inception. And it's all done in the cause of fighting a deadly enemy and protecting the people.

The British government have taken this urgent situation as an opportunity to introduce measures which may well presage mass internment. Without a vote of Parliament- or even debate- these new powers are coming into play. Among them is the authority granted to police to arbitrarily and for an unspecified period detain "people suspected of carrying the virus". Note the term "suspected". In a pandemic, everyone falls into that category. It really will be up to the police which individuals and which groups are to be targeted. Protections against forcible confinement in mental institutions are also to be lifted, so that more persons will be subject to involuntary psychiatric treatment. Here's a link that mentions a few of these changes and the misgivings of some opposition figures.
https://www.theguardian.com/wo...

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Supporters of terrorism. Who is Netanyahu thinking of: the Irgun, Lehi, the Hagana; Ben Gurion, Sharon, Peres? Such chutzpah. What moral abjectness to use the occasion of a disease which may kill thousands as an excuse for snooping. Thus, the moral vacuity of Netanyahu's view. Interesting that Gaza reports no cases of Covid 19. Is this genuine? If so, what's the explanation? That movement in and out is virtually nil? Might we be about to see a paradoxical advantage to Israel's imprisonment of the people of Gaza? That would gall the Israelis. On the other hand, the West Bank could incubate the disease and threaten swift spread. Conditions for many Palestinians there are not conducive to the best of health. In any case, the virus is showing us what decades of debate have failed to teach the Israelis: they are not superior. They aren't any different from Arabs in their essential biology. The virus can use the DNA of Jews to replicate itself just as readily as the DNA of Arabs. There is no biological superiority, even though some Zionists foolishly claim their DNA is unique. The virus will prove equality by inflaming the alveoli of Jews and Arabs with no respect for claims about what god gave to Abraham (who didn't exist) thousands of years ago. Freedom of religious belief is, of course, a fundamental human right, but if Zionists paid a little more attention to the science which is helping us fight Covid 19 and insisted a little less on imposing their views on others, an apparently intractable conflict might be easily resolved. Perhaps Netanyahu would be better advised too to wash his hands rather than spy on Arabs. The virus is no respecter of persons and he's no spring chicken. Spying and paranoia are bedfellows and paranoia is the inevitable affliction of those who impose injustice. Israel has to look over its shoulder, like any oppressor. Justice not snooping is the answer.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.