Israel plans to use counter-terrorism tools to stop spread of coronavirus

Culture and leisure spaces to close down as COVID-19 patients near 200.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020 (photo credit: GALI TIBBON POOL/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020
Israel is going to use counter-terrorism technologies to track coronavirus carriers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday as the government enacted new restrictions including the closure of all restaurants, cafes and theaters, and called for offices to have employees work from home.
“We are at war with an enemy: the coronavirus,” the prime minister said, “an invisible enemy.”
Netanyahu said that he had been given the green light by the Justice Ministry to use Intelligence tracking tools to digitally monitor coronavirus patients without asking them, which the prime minister admitted Saturday night infringes on personal privacy. But he argued that by using these means, “we will be able to see who they were with, what happened before and after [they were infected], and we will be able to isolate the coronavirus and not the entire country.
"We are one of the few countries with this capability, and we will use it,” he said. "We must do everything, as a government and as citizens, to not become infected and not to infect others.”
It was later clarified that these tolls would not be used for enforcement or monitoring of isolation guidelines.
As the number of coronavirus patients in the country neared 200 at press time, the government rolled out further restrictions that would go into effect Sunday morning. Kindergartens, nurseries, daycares, all special education learning centers and all recreational and leisure establishments will close. Workplaces will remain open, but staff will be asked to work from home. Gatherings will be limited to no more than 10 people.
According to the Education Ministry, aside from preschool students, the results of this new restriction mean that more than 160,000 special education children, at-risk students and students who are in boarding schools will not study.
And the prime minister stressed the importance of personal hygiene and that people stay a minimum of two meters apart from one another.
“Anyone who has a fever, or a fever and coughing must stay home,” Prof. Siegel Sadetzki, head of public health services in Israel said Saturday. “They definitely need to be in isolation - and this means in isolation even from the people they live with at home.”
In response to the closure of cultural establishments, Minister of Culture Miri Regev encouraged these places to look for ways to operate online. 
“Culture and art have a key role in national resilience and morale, and the Ministry of Culture and Sports, which I chair, will support such activities,” she said in a video statement. “Anyone with an initiative in this field is welcome to contact us and we will review it with the intention of allowing as many artists as possible to take part and make art available to any home in Israel.”
In response to the decision to use counter-terrorism tools, Dr. Tehila Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, stressed that, "We are in a state of emergency, but that does not mean that the State of Israel can be turned into a surveillance state. Gathering data and publishing warnings is one thing, but it is also important to preserve the right to privacy of Israeli citizens and the government use only proportionate tools.
"We are neither Vietnam nor Singapore, and about this we should be proud."
The attorney general will make a final decision regarding this digital tracking, Channel 13 later reported, and the process will need approval from the government and the Knesset.
The new restrictions will be in place until after Passover, unless the situation changes. And Netanyahu said that more restrictions could also be on the way.
At the same time, the prime minister tried to ensure the public that essential services will continue particularly regarding food, which will continue to arrive in Israel by sea and air - including for the upcoming Passover holiday.
“I know there was hysteria [over the weekend],” the prime minister said. “There is no reason for this. We have ways to fill the shelves.” He noted that the supermarkets, pharmacies, ATM machines and gas stations will continue to operate. But he said that “a new lifestyle needs to be adopted” by citizens of Israel.
Furthermore, shortly after the prime minister's press conference, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich followed up, announcing new restrictions on public transit, which he said would remain active those new maps would be rolled out according to public demand. 
"We call upon the public to minimize rides and only use public transit for important commutes," Smotrich said. "Starting Tuesday, people will not be able to pay in cash or buy bus cards directly from the driver. Payment will only be made using bus cards in order to minimize contact between the driver and the passengers."
In response to the new restrictions, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews announced it was setting up a $5 million emergency fund to help buy vital lifesaving equipment for hospitals and emergency medical teams and provide essential assistance to the elderly who are most at risk from the coronavirus. The foundation will begin providing food deliveries to seniors in the coming days, including ready-made meals. It is also arranging a shipment of test kits and other equipment for hospitals and emergency medical teams in conjunction with the Health Ministry. 
At press time, the number of coronavirus patients in the country had hit 195.
The Health Ministry shared the epidemiology of many of the sick patients over the weekend, including four new cases - siblings between the ages of six and 18 - who had been in "close contact with a known coronavirus patient." These are patients Nos. 119-122. They had all gone to their respective schools and preschools before knowing they had contracted the virus and entering isolation.
It was also reported that an airport authority employee who worked as a security inspector at Ben-Gurion Airport contracted coronavirus. A message was given to anyone who had been in contact with the patient, including 83 security workers, a shuttle driver and two from the Population Authority, who are now all in isolation for 14 days.
Police have continued to operate to assist the Health Ministry in dealing with people who breach their isolation orders or gather in numbers larger than allowed - formerly 100 people, now 10.
Over the weekend, police checked in on 296 halls, pubs, clubs and restaurants, most of which were adhering to the guidelines. Six businesses violated the guidelines and were summoned by police for hearings.
Police are also currently investigating 20 people suspected of violating home-quarantine orders.
In addition, the entire Foreign Ministry Cadets' Course had to go into quarantine on Saturday night, after one of the students was found to have the novel coronavirus.
The cadet took part in an event with American tourists, where two participants were found to carry the virus. He entered quarantine on Thursday after finding out.
After he was found to have the virus, as well, all the cadets and their instructors are meant to go into self-quarantine for 14 days and report if they have any symptoms.
“We are fighting for life and public health - the world has thousands of people dead,” Netanyahu stressed. “We know that it will be difficult to continue in this situation - but we are among the countries in the best position in the world.
“The disease is constantly evolving,” he continued. “We must continue to move forward as events develop. Every two days requires new decisions.”
He said that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better and called for an emergency government - for Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Meretz-Gesher to join this emergency government. He did not mention the Arab Joint List.
"We are willing to discuss this already tonight,” he said. “I believe we can overcome the crisis and win against the virus.”
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.