Israel's national vaccination drive has been hailed internationally as a case study for how countries can successfully and swiftly inoculate their population against COVID.
According to data from the country’s Ministry of Health, more than 50 percent of Israelis have gotten one dose, and 40 percent have completed their two-jab course.
However, there have many who say the vaccine rollout has come at the price of an extreme invasion of privacy and medical confidentiality.
There are even allegations that ahead of Israel’s fourth election in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration is using the pandemic to suppress voting, and evade his long-awaited corruption trial.
Netanyahu, who disbanded the government in December, is seeking a record sixth term in office, and to finally break a political deadlock that has seen voters return inconclusive election results in April and September 2019, and March 2020.
Under COVID restrictions currently in place, Israeli citizens have not been able to enter or leave the country without approval, something that can only be granted via sending a form to an exception committee. The committee was headed by Shilo Adler, who served as campaign adviser to Netanyahu in 2020, and is the CEO of the organisation for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The committee has been under intense scrutiny since journalist Uri Misgav reported on his popular blog for Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that the vast majority of passengers being allowed into Israel are ultra-orthodox. At the same time, many requests by secular Jews were rejected. Misgav also got testimonies from people in the ultra-orthodox who claimed they received fake vaccination certificates to facilitate them coming in.
Last week, the legal adviser for the government’s own Population and Immigration Authority put out a letter containing statements of airport workers who claimed that “politicians regularly interfered with [the] arrival committee to help their constituents and associates.”
According to testimony from airport workers, an aide of one of Netanyahu’s closest allies came to Ben Gurion airport, Israel’s only international airport, and checked quarantine-bound passengers off the list.
The United Torah Judaism Party even bragged about managing to get their constituents to jump the line in a recent campaign ad, whose slogan was, “we're working for you.”
“While the public is presented with a picture of a committee that sits and seriously discusses every request for entry and exit, in practice, the committee doesn't discuss every single case of citizens seeking to return to Israel,” the letter said.
The exception committee closed later that day, although the government has denied giving any preferential treatment to supporters.
Asked whether he thought the airport entrance approval process was politically biased towards Netanyahu, Ilan Jonas, a law professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and legal adviser for the transparency watchdog Shakuf, told VICE World News: "Unequivocally, yes.” He added: “Netanyahu will do anything to tip the scale in his favour.”
Netanyahu can ill afford to lose the coming election. His corruption trial finally started in January, and staying in the Prime Minister’s office is his only obvious route to slow down the legal process. For Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, it’s a sixth term or a possible jail term.
"Democracy is a very fragile system,” Jonas said. “As citizens, it's our job to be aware of any attempt to abuse it. It's more crucial in times of crisis like these.”
Almost a year ago, Israel was in the same political situation as it finds itself today: with a caretaker government in charge of the COVID response. In the early days of the pandemic, on the 17th of March 2020, a week after the election, Netanyahu was supposed to appear in court for the start of his bribery and corruption trial. However, three days before, the interim Minister of Justice, Amir Ohana, who was appointed without the normal approval process, shut down the courts, invoking an emergency act due to coronavirus, postponing Netanyahu's day in court.
"Israel has extreme emergency regulations powers. It gives the government authority to pass legislation without the approval of the Knesset and gives them overarching executive powers," says Maya Fried, Director of International Relations for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
These regulations, compounded with a caretaker government's extra-judicial privileges, gave Netanyahu and his government enormous power with little accountability.
As the courts and the country went into lockdown, the government passed an emergency regulation enabling the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to surveil citizens' phones. "The police were getting location information from cellphone towers and going to people's houses," Fried says.
"The problem is," says Jonas, the law professor, "that the Shin Bet isn't accountable to the citizens. There are no limitations on what information it can monitor and store."
The Shin Bet didn't only monitor the phones of people who were near COVID patients. In January this year, it was reported that it also tracked the phones of anti-Netanyahu protesters.
ACRI sent a petition to Israel’s High Court claiming this measure infringed on the right to privacy. But the government kept on revising the regulations. "It took four petitions and an entire year for the court to rule in our favour," Fried says. "Now the government has fourteen days to revise its measures."
However, just a day before the High Court struck down the government's illegal surveillance of citizens, the Knesset passed a new regulation that allows the Ministry of Health to pass personal details of unvaccinated people to local municipalities. The government claims this measure is meant to incentivise people to get vaccinated; however, there's no real oversight of how and to whom this information can be shared.
"It's an extreme breach of medical confidentiality. As the country opens up, it is problematic that the authorities have the power to target individuals who mostly come from underdeveloped communities, like the Arab and ultra-orthodox populations," Fried says.
Following a petition by ACRI and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, the High Court of Justice ruled an injunction against this measure earlier this week.
Along with the vaccine drive, the government is rolling out the Green Pass initiative, a vaccine passport app available to people who have been vaccinated, granting them access to malls, public institutions and more. According to Professor Orr Dunkelman from the Computer Science Department at University of Haifa, the app poses security risks as it uses an outdated encryption library that is susceptible to security breaches and stores unauthorised personal information like vaccination data.
“There are three ways of getting a Green Pass: a recent antibody test, a PCR test done in the past 72 hours, and vaccination. Currently, the government stores this specific information,” Dunkelman says.
He continues: “According to the law, customers will need to show their Green Pass to come into businesses. That’s reasonable. What’s not is that the business owners and the governments know the reason a customer has the Green Pass. Medical information is sensitive and there are a lot of stigmas surrounding various conditions, from information about sexual health to mental health. Imagine if someone cannot get a vaccine because of an underlying condition. This could lead to discrimination. Or, conversely, in many ultra-orthodox communities, Rabbis tell their community not to get vaccinated. Now imagine if members of the community found out someone got vaccinated.”
Netanyahu has made his leadership during the pandemic a central pillar of his election campaign, but Israel has suffered greatly during the last year: with 5,936 deaths and 809,870 cases, giving it the 54th worst per capita death rate in the world, worse than countries like Russia, Egypt, Jordan and India.
The vaccination rollout has also provoked controversy, with critics saying that Netanyahu’s promise to vaccinate “everyone” conspicuously excluded five million Palestinians living under Israel’s effective control.
Even though Israel has a surplus of vaccines, it did not distribute any of its stock to the Palestinian Authority or Palestinian workers coming into Israel, preferring to send supplies to allies like Guatemala, which recently opened an embassy in Jerusalem.
Citing the Oslo Accords, the government said it wasn’t obligated to vaccinate Palestinians.
Michael Sfard, a leading Israeli human rights lawyer, thinks differently. “It’s absurd that in the West Bank settlers are receiving vaccines and their Palestinian neighbours are not,” he says. “The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, stated that the newly formed Palestinian Authority would supply medical services to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, replacing the joint Israeli-Jordanian medical apparatus. However, the Oslo Accords were meant to be temporary until a peace plan was finalised. That didn’t happen. Therefore, according to international law, Israel, which is still an occupying force, is responsible to inoculate the Palestinian population.”
The government finally gave in to international pressure and sent a “limited quantity” of vaccines to the Palestinian Authority at the end of February, and only this week did it start vaccinating Palestinian workers coming into Israel.
There has also been controversy around clinics serving the vast refugee and asylum seeker community. “According to Israeli law, every citizen is entitled for universal healthcare,” Sfard says. “Asylum seekers and refugees fall in between the cracks and have to go to designated clinics After a long struggle, we managed to start a vaccination drive for refugees. However, there aren’t many clinics, and in the past few weeks there have been shutdowns and delays. The treatment of Palestinians and refugees is simply shameful.”
Overall, Israel’s COVID response has been inconsistent: on the one hand, the country is now leading the world in vaccines per capita, and on the other, the economy is still shut, schools are closed, and Netanyahu's reactions to criticism has been to blame members of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, protesters, the courts and his rivals.
Voters in Israel will go to the polls on the 23rd of March. Until then, political and privacy watchdogs are remaining on high alert.