The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee appears to be using a recent High Court of Justice ruling on the Shin Bet’s surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens to opt out of its oversight role.
Decreasing levels of infection rates may explain the lower level of action on the court’s part.
On February 15 the committee held a hearing on the issue in which it extended authorization to the Shin Bet to maintain surveillance until March 3.
In all past instances when the committee has extended the program by three weeks – an explicit provision in the summer 2020 corona law – it has met again three weeks later to carry out its oversight role and extend the program, often with certain conditions.
However, on Wednesday a committee official confirmed that no meeting was scheduled for that day or for the near future.
Coming a few days after the High Court’s Monday ruling limiting the volume of Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance, the committee’s move (or unexpected inaction) appears to be a sign that it is using the justices’ partial intervention as a basis to drop oversight entirely.
The High Court ruled on Monday that as of March 14, the government must limit use of Shin Bet surveillance to situations where an infected person’s memory is insufficient, or where he refuses to cooperate.
Confronted with the anachronism that the committee had authorized the Shin Bet surveillance only through March 3 but had no plan to take up the issue again, the committee spokesman gave two justifications.
First, he said that the committee has the power and discretion to hold hearings for extensions every three weeks, but is not obligated to do so by law.
Second, he said that the government has not made a new declaration extending the surveillance past March 3. Thus, it would be unclear about what the committee was holding a hearing.
Despite the spokesman’s explanations, all signs are that the Shin Bet surveillance will continue to run at full speed through March 14 and will continue to run indefinitely after that date, even if from that point forward there might be limitations.
The bottom-line conclusion that could be drawn from the committee’s decision not to hold a hearing was that it is not seeking to maintain an active or serious oversight role and would suffice to note technical excuses for passing on holding a hearing.
Even at the last hearing on February 15, most of the committee members failed to attend, with the Shin Bet surveillance extended by a 3-0 vote.
If in most past hearings there had been spirited debates to demand ending the surveillance or to replace it with the Magen 2 cellphone app or a new traffic light app, most of the February 15 hearing was chairman Zvi Hauser accosting the Health Ministry for not using Shin Bet surveillance broadly enough.
Hauser accused it of gross negligence for not using the surveillance or sending messages to go into quarantine to coronavirus-exposed persons who were previously infected or have been vaccinated.
Moreover, he demanded an immediate explanation regarding the policy not to notify these categories of people about being exposed to a coronavirus-infected person – with no explanation subsequently given.
Additionally, it is possible that the High Court’s limitation on the Shin Bet surveillance could be removed in the future, as the justices appeared to make their ruling conditional on a continued drop in infection rates.
The Prime Minister’s Office had no comment.