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Abuse of power? 400,000 Israelis were wrongly quarantined 

Astronomically high number reveals problems with contract tracing while also violating civil rights and costing workdays

Jerusalemites wearing a face mask shop for grocery at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Dec. 27, 2020, as Israel enters 3rd lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Approximately 400,000 Israelis have been reportedly wrongly ordered to quarantine by the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet’s cellphone coronavirus tracking system, Israel’s High Court of Justice said on Sunday. 

In his rebuke of the Shin Bet, Justice Isaac Amit said the law that permits tracking of individuals should only apply to situations when “the danger is defined as clear and present.” 

In an Israeli context, this normally refers to terrorists and national security threats.

Furthermore, data reveals that the effectiveness of the cellphone tracking has declined from between 20 to 30 percent of all coronavirus patients in July 2020 to just 9% in January 2021. 

“We’re talking about almost 400,000 people who were wrongly quarantined,” Justice Amit said. “If it took each of them three days to get released, that’s 1.2 million workdays lost to the economy.” 

The issue of the inaccurate cellphone tracking system goes far beyond incurring significant costs of lost workdays for the state. More fundamentally, it raises legal and ethical issues concerning fundamental rights, such as the freedom and integrity of the individual. 

While the purpose of rolling out Israel’s surveillance tools was implemented to address the pandemic crisis, the surveillance measures also test the country’s democratic norms. Tracking down suspected terrorists is one thing, tracking law-abiding citizens is something entirely different. 

“The idea of a government watching its own citizens this closely should ring the alarm,” said Maya Fried, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “This is against the foundations of democracy. You can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis.” 

Authorities are more inclined to make mistakes and rash decisions during times of a national crisis like the current pandemic.

However, not all wrong decisions are necessarily made by accident, and the fight against the coronavirus has resulted in cases of clear abuse of power against citizens. 

Earlier in January, it was revealed that a health ministry worker reportedly abused his authority by unnecessarily sending his former partner into quarantine four times during a period of several months. 

According to Israel Police, the man, who was an external contractor employed by the Health Ministry, has now been arrested, suspected of abuse of power, fraud and violation of privacy by sending his ex-girlfriend into quarantine on false grounds. 

He sent her official text messages stating that she had been close to a COVID patient and therefore needed to self-isolate for 14 days. The abuse was only discovered after the woman's repeated appeals to the Health Ministry against the quarantine instructions raised suspicions. 

In another incident, a man who leads a Messianic congregation told ALL ISRAEL NEWS that he was also wrongly sent into quarantine four times including for moments when he was sitting at home alone, nowhere near a confirmed coronavirus case. His appeals were rejected.

The case of the ex-girlfriend sent into quarantine is also an example of the increase in domestic abuse cases in Israel during the pandemic, especially during the lockdowns. The Israeli government has been criticized for its poor response to the rising number of domestic violence cases against women.

Women’s rights activists have urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step up the fight against domestic abuse, which has increased throughout all population segments in the country. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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