Israel Is Militarizing and Monetizing the COVID-19 Pandemic

Coronavirus is ravaging the globe right now. It’s a perfect time for the Israeli state to figure out how to expand its already vast surveillance powers. 

Israeli police troops detain ultra-Orthodox Jewish men as they enforce a partial coronavirus lockdown in the Mea Shearim neighborhood on March 31, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel. Amir Levy / Getty

Israel held its most recent election in early March, just as the coronavirus outbreak first reached the country in late February. The results of the election at first appeared to give Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition a major victory.

But within days, the media realized that the fulcrum of power had shifted from Netanyahu’s far-right bloc to the center-right bloc led by Benny Gantz of Blue and White. As Israel’s president tasked the latter with forming a new government, based on the sixty-one MKs (Knesset members) who recommended he be offered the opportunity, it appeared there would be a minority government in which Blue and White would be supported from outside by the Palestinian Joint List.

Layered on top of this political crisis was a growing pandemic sweeping the world. As the number of Israeli victims and the first death from coronavirus was announced, Netanyahu saw an opportunity to revive his political relevance. Actually, Netanyahu acted even before the first death, which was on March 20.

Only a few days earlier, on March 16, he asked the Knesset intelligence committee to approve the use of a hitherto secret national database compiled by the Shin Bet and comprising private personal data on every Israeli citizen, both Jewish and Palestinian. In the aftermath of 9/11, Israel’s Knesset secretly assigned its domestic intelligence agency the task of creating the database, which was ostensibly meant as a counterterrorism measure.

The data included puts Edward Snowden’s alarms about the NSA’s mass surveillance to shame. It not only contains the names, addresses, and phone numbers of every citizen; it also records every phone call made, and the recipient of these calls, including name and phone number. It uses geo-location to track where every citizen has traveled within the country, and it maintains records of all online activity, including internet searches.

The top-secret project was couched by Netanyahu as a powerful tool to monitor victims of the epidemic and all who had social contact with them. Few Israelis, aside from privacy advocates and related NGOs, raised any alarms about the obvious violations of individual privacy and rights entailed in both the database itself, whose codename was “the Tool,” and its use to compel suspected coronavirus victims to self-quarantine. They remained silent — even though health ministry officials urging them to approve use of the database suggested that the epidemic would force the state to “suspend personal freedoms.”

Mixing Politics and Pandemic

Few politicians, even in the opposition, questioned the prime minister’s exposure of a decades-long secret database touted as one of the Shin Bet’s most powerful counterterrorism tools. They should have, because Netanyahu was clearly exploiting the existence of the Tool to highlight for the public his indispensability. He wanted Israelis to view him as the strong, steady leader who could carry them through the threat posed by the epidemic.

He was pulling out all the stops to save his career, as the opposition plotted to form a government that would exclude him from power and leave him vulnerable to a criminal trial on three corruption counts. The planned governing coalition also proposed several new laws that would prohibit Israel’s longest serving premier from ever returning to power.

So Netanyahu pulled out all the stops. He directed the Likud speaker of the Knesset to use the excuse of coronavirus contagion to adjourn the Knesset. For that reason, the intelligence committee never approved use of the Tool during the epidemic. Instead, Netanyahu bypassed legislative oversight and employed emergency executive regulations to approve the plan.

The opposition Blue and White appealed to the Supreme Court, which asked the speaker to reconvene the Knesset. When he refused, the justices told him he must do so within five days or Netanyahu’s order would be null and void. In response, the speaker himself resigned, which left the country with no legislative body, since only the speaker can call it into session.

Add the growing anxiety over the COVID-19 epidemic, which began to hit Israel in earnest, to the near panic over the country’s political crisis, and you have a perfect recipe for Netanyahu’s miraculous political comeback. Polling began to concern Gantz, showing that the public wanted stability and saw this in a unity government between his Blue and White and the Likud.

As a result, late last month, the opposition leader pulled the plug on the center-right bloc he’d led through three previous elections and threw in his lot with Netanyahu’s Likud.  The bloc split in two, with fifteen MKs following Gantz into the new government and the remaining eighteen MKs, led by former IDF general Moshe Ya’alon and Yair Lapid, going into opposition. The split shocked Gantz’s former allies and was received as a betrayal of a campaign commitment he’d made never to sit in a government with an indicted prime minister.

As part of the deal to form the new unity government, Gantz demanded the speaker’s position for himself. This allows him to control the body’s agenda. Negotiations continue to be underway regarding the ministerial portfolios and legislative priorities.

Netanyahu Exposed Major Intelligence Asset for Political Self-Preservation

Returning to the Tool, spy agencies are loath to divulge their secrets, and no doubt the Shin Bet was stunned when it discovered this potent weapon had been exposed. It was also concerned about the long-term criticism it might face on civil liberties grounds and, according to a security source, decided to leak an account of the Tool to foreign media.

That’s how Israeli intelligence reporter Ronen Bergman published his story in the New York Times in mid-March. Bergman followed up with a much more detailed account in Yedioth Ahronoth near the month’s end. While his story raised some ethical concerns, including noting that no time limit had been placed on retention of the data collected, it generally played down concerns that the project might violate individual rights.

Bergman did so by quoting former agency officials who claimed they had engaged in exhaustive deliberations about these issues, minimizing any possibility of serious security breaches, or of the Tool being used for the purpose of a political vendetta or to harm innocent citizen victims.

But clearly, the aim of the leak was to portray the Tool and the agency in the most flattering possible light and head off any groundswell of criticism of it or its mission. It’s no accident that four days after the publication of Bergman’s article, the Knesset intelligence committee approved using the Tool in the COVID-19 fight.

Missing were any serious discussions about how it would impact those targeted by its use. The geo-location function would track every known coronavirus victim, and not only while they had the illness. It would go back in time two weeks to track every movement of the victim: where they went, who they met. It would even identify anyone who stood within six feet of the individual for longer than twenty minutes. Those bystanders, too, would be identified and placed under quarantine, whether they had the virus or not; whether they were tested or not.

Any health policy expert will tell you that the history of pandemics, including HIV and Ebola, indicates that victims must not be criminalized or ostracized. They must be encouraged to cooperate with authorities in order to protect themselves, their family, and the public.

Given that Israeli police are now empowered to arrest anyone violating regulations and fine them $1,500, along with a six-month prison term, using the Tool as a law enforcement rather than a public health measure carries the nation very far in a direction no society should go.

The Israeli government also tasked the Mossad with purchasing hundreds of thousands of ventilators and respirators for its citizens to prepare for the full onslaught of the contagion. Media reports deliberately omitted the source of the equipment, saying only that it might be a country with which Israel has no formal relations. Other reports indicated that it was purchased in the United Arab Emirates.

In fact, Mossad officials interviewed for the TV nprogram Uvda boasted to Ilana Dayan, the host, that the agency had “stolen” the 100,000 face masks and respirators on the first shipment it brought to Israel.

The New York Times just published a bit of journalistic hagiography by Ronen Bergman, celebrating the heroics of the Mossad in saving Israeli lives by beating the bushes around the world for medical equipment and test kits to protect Israelis from COVID-19. But no one seems to have asked why the nation’s intelligence agency would be assigned the job of preparing for a national epidemic. Indeed, Bergman quotes an Israeli health official bursting with pride:

“It is only in Israel that the Sheba hospital could have enlisted the help of the Mossad,” he said in an interview. “Can you imagine Mount Sinai Hospital going to the C.I.A. for help?”

No one notes that in every other democratic country, the health authorities do such a job. But Israel, in a bit of political chicanery, appointed an ultra-Orthodox (“Haredi” in Hebrew) Jew who does not believe in science or medicine to take charge of the health ministry. The minister violated his own ministry’s quarantine orders and joined in prayer services, where he promptly contracted COVID-19. Were Israel a normal state instead of a mash-up of a theocracy and a garrison state, it would not need (or want) the Mossad to perform such duties.

Militarizing the Pandemic

Netanyahu has also directed hundreds of IDF soldiers to patrol inside Israel and enforce restrictions against movement. Armed soldiers have never walked the streets targeting Israeli Jews for violating the law. A Haaretz report claims it is the only democracy using its security services and military to track coronavirus victims.

In addition, the prime minister announced that the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) city of Bnei Brak has been placed under full closure. In another first, the Border Police, whose mission is to enforce occupation on West Bank Palestinians and prevent them from entering Israel as illegal workers, will enforce the blockade on an entire Israeli Jewish community.

This reinforces the impression that Israel’s far-right government has militarized the contagion. Just as a hammer never met a nail it didn’t want to pound, it is only natural for a national security state like Israel to see COVID-19 as a security threat just as much or more than a health threat.

Israel announced before any other country that its chemical and biological weapons lab at Nes Tziona had developed a vaccine (though the claim was later disputed). While it’s certainly commendable for Israeli scientists to make such efforts to save lives, Nes Tziona has the expertise to develop such a vaccine because its research involves testing and developing lethal agents used against the country’s enemies. The lab also develops agents to counteract such pathogens as COVID-19 in order to protect Israel’s soldiers and civilians.

But the preponderance of Nes Tziona’s work, at least what is known publicly, is used to develop deadly agents to kill Israel’s enemies. The poison injected by two Mossad assassins into Khaled Mashal in Jordan in 1997 was developed by Nes Tziona, as was the antidote that King Hussein demanded in order to save Mashal’s life. The poison used by the twenty-seven-strong Mossad hit team to assassinate Hamas weapons dealer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010 was similarly developed by Nes Tziona.

Any evaluation of the good that could come from such a COVID-19 vaccine must be weighed against the damage such a facility does in all its other work.

Democracy Dies During Disasters

Netanyahu is attempting to cast himself as the Indispensable Man during the health crisis. He knows that when an entire nation is living in uncertainty and mass anxiety, they are willing to sacrifice even more of their rights in return for a leader with a firm hand. This is how Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Similarly, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán arrogated to himself absolute power using the excuse of the epidemic to name himself dictator.

Fortunately, Netanyahu’s political status is unstable. He does not have the sort of ironclad control Orbán enjoys. There are limits to what he can accomplish. But over the past twenty-five years, during most of which he led the country, he has gradually consolidated massive power in himself and his office. There is a huge temptation to exploit that power as he faces legal and political challenges.

Israel’s right-wing defense minister, Naftali Bennett, offered his own proposals for fighting the pandemic. The technology he’s promoting would develop a scorecard for every citizen and rate their likelihood of having or transmitting coronavirus. Because the surge in the number of victims and hospitalizations has rendered it impossible to do proper investigation of the chain of transmission, in order to detect who was in proximity to the victim and isolate them as well, he urges adoption of a cyber tool created by the ID, which would pour all relevant data compiled by the ministry of health and Shin Bet into a database.

The computer model would then assign a score of one to ten to each individual profiled. The score would indicate in real time, moment by moment, the likelihood that they were infected. Those on the highest end of the spectrum would be “invited” for testing.

In a deft bit of dog-whistle racism, Bennett also noted that COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire through two different Israeli communities: the ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinian. He told a TV interviewer that there were “three Israels.” Two were riddled with disease. The third, presumably, was his own modern, well-educated, affluent, and relatively disease-free Ashkenazi sector.

He advocated treating the other two Israels as if beset by plague: sealing them off and letting them fend for themselves. In fact, Israeli authorities have refused to provide any testing for Israeli Palestinian communities, which are already best by inferior medical care. That is one of the reasons Israeli Palestinians in Jaffa rioted recently, throwing stones at police and firefighters.

Israel media reported that Palestinians protested the arrest of a resident who defied “stay-at-home” regulations. If that is the case, the blame lies as much with the state for not educating its minority citizens about the peril they face in ignoring public health protocols. But it’s equally likely these protesters were objecting to the not-so-benign neglect they face from the Israeli public health system.

The ultra-Orthodox face other obstacles to following public health regulations. Since they reject secular Israeli society, they are naturally segregated from outsiders. Their communities tend to be insular. Since they have rejected secular education, they tend to be poorer and live in apartments in densely populated neighborhoods. And the only authorities they trust are rabbis, who naturally have no scientific or medical expertise. Many of the rabbis told their flock earlier that they should carry on daily life as usual, including mass prayer services and other public religious rites — all of which led to further spread of the contagion.

Bennett’s statement about both communities revealed the innate racism, and even a form of antisemitism, at the heart of Israel — toward Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox, respectively. It also highlights the failure of the state to integrate either group into larger society. Israeli politicians benefit from the segregation of the ultra-Orthodox, who tend to vote as a bloc. Their political parties then join governing coalitions as they have the current far-right Likud-led government.

The Haredi ministers tend to dole out funding and benefits to their community from the public purse. That’s how one of their rabbinic authorities became health minister without any experience in either health, medicine, or secular knowledge. In fact, when an interviewer asked him how long before the worst of the epidemic would be over, he replied that the Messiah would come before Passover and relieve all the suffering. He also developed COVID-19 himself after twice defying his own ministry’s quarantine orders ordering the end of public prayer services.

The development of Haredi political muscle that then joins secular Israeli governing coalitions has made for a convenient arrangement for both sides as long as the state has existed. But the downside is that they have been offered little reason to join the broader Israeli society. The COVID-19 tragedy, in which one public health expert has estimated that 40 percent of B’nai Brak’s residents are infected, is the result of that misguided social policy.

Monetizing the Pandemic

The second half of the defense minister’s plan to combat COVID-19 urged the nation to adapt the Tool as a “civilian” product developed by Israel’s cybersecurity industry and marketed to foreign countries. In fact, he suggested one particular company that was already doing so: NSO Group. As I’ve written here before, it is the world’s most successful cyber-hacking firm, recently sold to a private venture capital firm in the UK for a $1 billion “unicorn” valuation.

NSO’s primary product is Pegasus, the most sophisticated malware on the market. It has been used by police agencies in scores of countries to spy on terrorist groups and drug dealers. At least, that’s what the PR firms representing NSO will tell you. But there is a dark underbelly that NSO refuses to acknowledge. It also sells Pegasus to some of the most repressive countries in the world, whose secret police use it to target political dissidents, rights activists, independent journalists, and public interest lawyers.

NSO’s products have been used as evidence in cases brought against human rights activists fighting for democracy in their own societies. Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE was sentenced to ten years in prison for his activism. His cell phone was hacked, and all his emails and text messages were used as evidence in court against him.

Even more troubling is the case of Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi intelligence agents. They, too, used Pegasus to monitor Khashoggi’s contacts and even his physical location. The malware enabled them to determine where he was, where he went, and where he intended to go, including to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where the murderers laid in wait for him.

Groups like Amnesty International and Citizen Lab are fighting back against these violations of basic human rights. The former is suing in Israeli courts to force the defense ministry to revoke NSO’s export license to sell Pegasus abroad.

NSO may see the handwriting on the wall in terms of the pushback against its malware. It may contemplate so much controversy that either the state will cease to permit its sale or the world will prohibit it. That’s why NSO is getting ahead of the curve. It knows about the Tool and is already offering to sell countries a “civilian” (meaning less problematic) version. Presumably, health ministries and government population registries would compile databases covering all citizens. Then, algorithms developed by the Shin Bet and/or NSO would manipulate the data to detect patterns among the population.

If you know who is already infected with COVID-19, you can trace their movements, who they’ve been in proximity to, and then spread a wider net to stop the circulation of the virus in the wider population. But, of course, such a tool can be used for much more nefarious purposes.

If you’re a Saudi intelligence agent, you can target a specific state enemy — where they go, who they meet, who they email or text, what they say to each other. You can go backward in time as long as you wish to follow such trails. It offers endless dragnet opportunities to ensnare targeted individuals and anyone who has any contact, whether benign or suspicious. This saves such security agents the tedious process of hauling suspects in for interrogation and attempting to elicit from them, by persuasion or force, incriminating information.

Bennett is promoting this new NSO product as a way to monetize the COVID-19 epidemic. Israel is one of the top ten weapons exporters in the world. But now, it’s also become a powerhouse in the field of black-hat cyber-security: selling tools used by the world’s most repressive regimes to exert social control.

It seems like human nature that grifters and con artists will exploit tragedy in order to cheat unwitting individuals. Even major corporations advertise during such disasters in order to promote their brands. But in this case, Bennett is using the power of his state office to promote not just an individual product, but the entire mass surveillance state it represents.

When a country buys Pegasus or the civilian version of the Tool, they are not just buying a discrete product. They are, in fact, buying all of the social, political, and intelligence premises built into it. Even if, for example, you have a national constitution or a set of regulations that govern surveillance and individual privacy, these tools are so powerful, so sweeping that they vacuum up massive amounts of data. The data cries out to be used and manipulated, which is what intelligence agencies like the NSA and the IDF’s Unit 8200 do.

In the process, they far outstrip any protections that may be in place to prevent misuse of personal data or violations of privacy. In that sense, Israel is exporting its own national security state alongside these cyber-tools: a state that sacrifices individual rights on the altar of security. A state in which citizens defer to state authorities who act in their name. So, when another country implements Israeli cyber-ware, they too will absorb some of these assumptions and values embedded in their development.

In effect, these cyber-spying tools are outrunning the development of laws to regulate them. There is no international code under which cyber-surveillance technology may be regulated. It is a Wild West out there. These are conditions Israel finds ideal for pursuing both its geo-political and commercial interests, interests that thrive on confusion, division, and uncertainty — precisely the conditions we now face.