Israel's police cannot commit crimes to fight crime - editorial

The use of these tracking technologies without judicial oversight and the required permission cannot be justified and presents a severe violation of basic civil liberties.

THE ISRAEL POLICE conducts its high-level investigations through Lahav 433, the country’s ‘FBI,’ headquartered in this building in Lod. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
THE ISRAEL POLICE conducts its high-level investigations through Lahav 433, the country’s ‘FBI,’ headquartered in this building in Lod.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

The latest revelations in the ongoing corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu raise some disturbing questions about the Israel Police. Not only have their work methods come under increasing doubt, but also their response to allegations of possible wrongdoing.

Last month, Calcalist revealed that law enforcement agencies used NSO’s Pegasus hacking technology against Israel’s citizens. The report claimed that the police did so without the court approvals demanded by law.

Initially, police denied the claim, but in a dramatic about-face, last week it admitted that an internal probe found evidence that officers had conducted electronic surveillance of citizens without receiving proper judicial authorization. A statement said, still opaquely, “additional findings were discovered that change the state of affairs in certain aspects.”

When the initial scandal broke, MKs from across the political spectrum asked Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged police usage of NSO Pegasus and similar technology, and State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman and the Privacy Authority both announced they would probe the police regarding the accusations. It is essential that this does not remain an empty promise.

One of the last acts by Avichai Mandelblit before he left the Attorney-General’s Office last week was to appoint the members of the inquiry committee.

 Outgoing Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit at his retirement ceremony, February 1, 2022.  (credit: DAVID WEIL/GPO) Outgoing Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit at his retirement ceremony, February 1, 2022. (credit: DAVID WEIL/GPO)

The fact that it is difficult to know just who can conduct the investigation into the police demonstrates the seriousness of the problem when the police are implicated in wrongdoing.

The illegal surveillance claims caused a scandal particularly in the context of Netanyahu’s trial, but obviously, this is something that affects each and every citizen, from all walks of life and communities.

If the allegations of illegal police phone hacking are true, they raise serious questions about the extent to which the police allows itself to take independent action ignoring the necessary judicial procedure required in a democratic society.

The use of these tracking technologies without judicial oversight and the required permission cannot be justified and presents a severe violation of basic civil liberties. The police cannot be granted immunity to commit criminal acts in the name of fighting crime.

Last month, an expanded panel of Supreme Court justices issued a ruling allowing the police access to data on the cellphones of two former Netanyahu aides, as part of an investigation against them for alleged witness intimidation, even though the phones were not appropriated with proper authorization.

Police confiscated the phones of Ofer Golan and Yonatan Urich, who were allegedly involved in efforts to intimidate Shlomo Filber – a state’s witness in the Netanyahu bribery trial – and used the opportunity to search the data without a warrant. Only after going through the material on the phones did the police ask the court for retroactive permission. This is lawlessness.

In the US, there is a legal concept known as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” which is used to describe evidence that is obtained illegally. Such evidence, obtained without court approval and not in accordance with legal procedures, is considered tainted and unusable. Ditto, anything that stems from it.

We must, however, be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Clearly, there is a need for the police and security bodies to be able to use modern methods to combat crime and terrorism. Nobody is advocating a return to the days of the policeman armed only with a pencil and notebook. 

Nonetheless, there has to be accountability and a system of checks and balances. A good place to start would be to update the so-called wiretapping law to make it applicable to today’s technological world.

There must be a full probe into the recent police behavior and possible abuse of power. There must also be a system of ongoing external supervision of the police by a body that can be trusted. 

The police must realize that the end cannot automatically be considered to justify the means. The police cannot be allowed to act with impunity.