The Shin Bet confirmed to the Jerusalem Post mid Tuesday afternoon that it had started surveillance of citizens infected by the coronavirus. An hour earlier, a top legal official confirmed on that the Shin Bet's legal authority to do so was already be in effect.
Speaking to a group of journalists, the official said that there was a full green-light and the only questions was whether the Shin Bet had made its own final decision to start using the new surveillance authorities.
Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman issued a statement Tuesday morning saying that his agency would soon start delivering information about those citizens infected with the coronavirus to the Health Ministry.
This came after the government unanimously passed the request by the Health Ministry to use digital counter-terrorism tools to track the movements of coronavirus patients.
The vote was held via conference call to adhere to the government‘s new guidelines forbidding more than 10 people to gather.
Argaman emphasized that the Shin Bet would not be involved in enforcement of the quarantine rules, as this would still be done by the police.
Argaman also said that the Shin Bet would not hold on to any of the information it collects from persons' cellphones, about their locations or otherwise, after delivering the information to the Health Ministry.
The Shin Bet chief clarified that his agency had been asked to perform these functions, but had not sought to and would not want to perform them any longer than medically necessary.
Argaman said there were limits on using surveillance technology, but like other officials, did not specify the limits.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement defending his government's 1:30 a.m. decision to authorize Shin Bet surveillance of citizens regarding the coronavirus.
Netanyahu reacted to Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi calling the overnight decision "surrendering transparency" and "political thievery."
"Because the pandemic is spreading at an incredibly fast pace, postponing using these tools by even an hour could cause the deaths of a very large amount of Israelis," Netanyahu said, referencing Italy and other countries.
Government legal sources implied that if the Knesset could have dealt with the issue by Tuesday morning that they might have waited longer to get that approval.
Netanyahu said it could have taken the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee days to deal with the issue. He said the attorney-general and Health Ministry drafted the decision and it will be in effect for 14 days, instead of the original 30 days, during which the committee could make recommendations about how to change it.
Gantz said that these are exceptional times that, unfortunately, call for exceptional measures in order to save lives. but he said the cabinet decision went too far.
"We cannot surrender transparency and oversight," Gantz said. "Blue and White will insist that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, along with a special Corona sub-committee, the Finance Committee and other sub-committees be enlisted immediately to oversee the process and approve the type of oversight regulation so critical at this juncture."
He said the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee must further be privy to information on tracking measures approved thus far.
"A functional parliament, even and especially in states of emergency, is a hallmark of democracy and we will be steadfast in preserving it,” he wrote.
Also on Tuesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued a statement that he green-lighted the government having the authority to let the Shin Bet move forward with their plans without Knesset approval and explained in his statement that the situation was becoming so acute that the country could no longer wait for parliamentary approval.
His announcement comes after Netanyahu appeared to break a promise of his and of Mandelblit’s that the Shin Bet surveillance of citizens regarding coronavirus would only start after Ashkenazi's Intelligence Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee approved it.
Ashkenazi's committee debated the issue for the first time on Monday, but demanded more time to analyze the issues, remarking that they would not be a rubber stamp.
Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri implied to a conference call of reporters that state lawyers had been surprised that the Knesset did not quickly approve the Shin Bet surveillance.
Ashkenazi expressed outrage at the overnight cabinet decision, calling it "political thievery."
"It is improper that this is the way using such means is authorized, without parliamentary and public oversight," Ashkenazi said.
Ashkenazi called for the immediate formation of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in order to meet on the matter and ensure proper oversight as required by law.
Labor-Meretz MK Merav Michaeli used even harsher language in criticizing the decision, which she said was made to serve Netanyahu and not to serve the struggle against the coronavirus.
"The citizens of Israel are not terrorists," she said. "There is no justification for such extreme and dangerous steps."
Late Tuesday night, the High Court of Justice rejected a request to freeze the Shin Bet's surveillance of citizens infected with the coronavirus, but agreed to hold a hearing on the issue on Thursday.
Justice Noam Sohlberg ordered the state to respond to the petition to compel binding oversight of the Shin Bet involvement by the Knesset.
Lawyer Shahar Ben Meir, in conjunction with the Movement for Digital Rights, filed the petition earlier Tuesday demanding that the court freeze Shin Bet surveillance until the Knesset signs off.
Further the petitioners said that the basis for any Shin Bet involvement should be the Shin Bet Law, which includes significant civil liberties protections, and not an emergency order, which contains fewer protections.
Also on Tuesday night, the state filed a response to the High Court defending Acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s Saturday night decision of placing the courts in a state of emergency, including the highly controversial result of postponing Netanyahu’s trial from Tuesday until May 24.
Previously, the Movement for the Quality of Government in Israel petitioned to revoke the state of emergency on the courts, calling it an unconstitutional power grab by Ohana to try to help Netanyahu escape justice on the back of the corona virus crisis.
The Movement said that the postponement could severely harm the public’s faith in the rule of law.
The state’s response did not even mention Netanyahu’s trial and focused on the idea that the emergency order was coordinated with the courts.
A statement issued by the courts on Sunday appeared to support Ohana despite heavy criticism from the Center-Left political parties as well as many former senior legal officials and legal academics.