Knesset closes in on new Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance law
Mossad head Yossi Cohen marks the agency’s ending its coronavirus-related activity
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The full list of medical supplies, including some 80 million surgical masks, that the Mossad hunted down and brought to Israel during the coronavirus crisis was revealed by the Hebrew website Ynet on Tuesday.
Information about the supplies the Mossad secured for the Jewish state came on the same day that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, outgoing Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov and other top officials attended a ceremony marking the end of the IDF’s involvement with the National Coronavirus Control Center at Sheba Medical Center.
There are 14 million more masks on their way to Israel, Ynet said.
In addition, the Mossad brought 180 million pairs of gloves and hundreds of millions of medical drugs to help ailing persons and 1,300 ventilators. Another 4,700 ventilators have been ordered and are expected to arrive in the country by October, in time for a potential second wave.
Finally, the spy agency brought around two million coronavirus test kits.
At the parting ceremony, Cohen said that while he and his agents “don’t have any medical expertise,” they were able to bring “the spirit of the Mossad” into the daily operations undertaken to curb the the coronavirus health threat.
On Tuesday, the responsibility over coordinating the delivery of supplies to Israel was transferred from the Mossad to the Health Ministry.
Earlier in the day, the Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee extended the Shin Bet’s surveillance of coronavirus infected citizens for an additional three weeks as the government closes in on passing a new law to regulate the issue.
By a vote of 2-1, the committee gave the government until June 8 to submit its proposed bill and until June 16 before another oversight hearing on the issue.
According to the schedule outlined by government representatives, they would hope to fast-track the new bill and pass it into law by early or mid-July.
The committee continued a dynamic of extending the program for a limited period in order to try to keep the government motivated to come forward with the proposed bill and avoid stalling.
While the committee chairman switched since the last hearing from Blue and White’s Gabi Ashkenazi to the current chair, Derech Eretz’s Zvi Hauser, the tone of the hearing was mostly the same.
Hauser and Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar showed lukewarm support, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked voiced strong support, Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar condemned the program and other MKs asked pointed questions about the programs developing details.
One of the strongest defenses of the program has been the statistic that around one third of the more than 16,000 persons infected were tracked down by it, while a major criticism has been that 93% of the people who the Shin Bet told to go into isolation were found to be healthy and that only 7% were determined to be infected.
Two significant differences at the hearing were that the government announced in recent weeks that it has self-reduced the use of the Shin Bet to track people following the country’s initial success in emerging from the corona disaster, and fewer MKs attending the hearing.
The 2-1 vote was down from a previous vote of 6-3 in which many more MKs participated.
It was unclear if the reduced attendance stemmed from less attention to the issue, a reduced role for the program or the sense that the next hearings on the bill itself would be more decisive than this one.
Avidar continued to loudly oppose the program, lashing out at the Health Ministry’s officials, “why, with only 20 infected persons per day, can’t you do your job? You have 400 nurses…and you cannot do enough tests – and you want to go into telephones? Increase the number of tests!…Why do you want to use dictatorial methods which are not fitting for our democracy?”
In late March, late April and early May, the committee extended the program, but under threat that progress needed to be made with the new proposed law.
Ashkenazi said at the time that the hearing schedule was designed to give the government time to decide whether it would try to pass new full-fledged legislation so that the program complies with a High Court requirement to do so, and can continue to run for a longer-term, while ensuring that the government makes a quick decision.
Consistently, Shaked has said the program should continue, while Avidar has said that the government had misled the committee by underplaying alternative options for following corona trends such as those being used by other countries.
On Tuesday, Health Ministry technology official Rona Kaiser gave the most comprehensive review yet of alternate technologies and what other countries are doing technologically to follow infection trends.
Addressing replacing the Shin Bet program with the “Shield” application that can be downloaded voluntarily on citizens’ cellphones, she said that one problem was that in most countries less than a quarter of the population was downloading the application.
Kaiser warned many might ignore government calls to download the application because the average citizen believes the corona crisis is over.
Head of Public Health Prof. Sigal Sadetsky said that there is likely to be second wave of coronavirus by winter and that it could come even sooner if the Shin Bet program does not remain as an option to contain future outbreaks before they spread too far.
Essentially, Health Ministry officials appeared ready to opt for a two-tiered system by which they would hope that people use the Shield application to report on infection trends, but that the Shin Bet option would be maintained and held in reserve should infection rates suddenly spike again.
The surveillance started in mid-March when the coronavirus crisis hit a peak and ran for around two weeks before the Knesset asserted any serious oversight of the program.
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