Standing at the podium in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem Saturday night, a grave-looking Benjamin Netanyahu declared Israel was in a state of emergency. The prime minister, who did not field questions from reporters, announced he would be ramming through a series of emergency directives, including the mass surveillance of Israeli citizens, as part of the fight against the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Netanyahu stated that as part of the “war against an invisible enemy” — which has already infected over 200 Israeli citizens and nearly 40 Palestinians — he would be implementing “technological means” previously used in the “fight against terrorism” to monitor the movement of those who have tested positive for the virus, most likely by actively tracking citizens through geolocating their cellphones and credit cards.
The move, which was quickly approved by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, means Israel has officially joined the ranks of China and Iran in using intelligence-gathering tools to track its own population. By Sunday evening, the Israeli government approved measures that would allow the Shin Bet to monitor Israelis who have been infected.
Netanyahu may have approved only a single measure, but the legacy of these emergency directives means that down the line, the Israeli government will have a wealth of surveillance methods to choose from, many of which are a common feature for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Over the past few decades, and particularly since the Second Intifada, Israel has effectively turned the occupied territories into a lab for testing out its weapons and surveillance technology.
From drones, to Facebook hacking, to biometric facial recognition, to blackmailing Palestinians with private information, to profiling potential Palestinian attackers using algorithms, surveillance is an essential component in the effort to turn Palestinians into obedient subjects of military dictatorship.
The fact that Israel controls nearly every aspect of life in the West Bank means it can endlessly test these technologies on Palestinian civilians before it sells it to some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.
Critics have long warned that it was only a matter of time before the draconian policies used against Palestinians in the occupied territories — and Palestinian citizens of Israel — would be used against all Israeli citizens. In 2015, +972 and Local Call revealed that the IDF is contracting private tech companies to monitor Israeli citizens on social media. There is no reason to believe the long arm of Israel’s security establishment stops at the Green Line. Now that it has happened, it is going to be incredibly difficult to shove the genie back into the bottle.
On its face, Netanyahu’s announcement was meant to assuage a public desperate for some semblance of stability, as the numbers of infected are expected to continue rising. One could even argue that in the short term, Israelis should be willing to incur invasions of privacy and personal rights so that the government can effectively monitor sick Israelis and prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
But something far more sinister underlies Netanyahu’s directives: the consolidation of power and the crushing of dissent in order to evade justice. According to the emergency regulations, the prime minister has banned gatherings of over 10 people, barring any chance to protest the new measures.
Hours after the announcement, at 1 a.m., Justice Minister Amir Ohana imposed further emergency measures on the Israeli courts and announced that the prime minister’s long-awaited trial, which was set to begin on Tuesday, had been delayed at least until May 24. Facing backlash, Ohana claimed the judges, not the Justice Ministry, were behind the decision.
All of this is happening after a year in which Netanyahu has ruled over a transitional government whose decisions are not subject to the oversight of the Knesset committees. He has appointed ministers at his own whim, has refrained from holding cabinet meetings, and is making crucial decisions that could permanently shape political norms in Israel. As Noa Landau wrote in Haaretz, the changes Netanyahu is implementing are “happening without a government, without a sitting parliament, and against an exhausted justice system, whose powers have been curtailed in the dead of night.”
In his book “State of Exception,” Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that in times of crisis, governments will use the vocabulary of war to suspend laws, constitutional rights, and norms to create a “new normal,” thus precipitating a decline into totalitarianism. In Israel — a country that has been in a state of war since its very founding, and which has reigned over millions of stateless Palestinians for half a century — the “state of exception” is not a theoretical possibility. It is the slippery slope on which we have been sliding for years.