COVID-19: Israel govt gets more time to use spy agency

Israel MPs give govt more time to use spy agency against coronavirus

Israel's parliament on Thursday extended a deadline set by the Supreme Court for the government to put forward a bill authorising its controversial use of the domestic security agency to track coronavirus infections.

In a ruling on Sunday, Israel's top court had given the government until Thursday to begin "a primary legislative process" that would authorise the Shin Bet's coronavirus surveillance or discontinue it.

But the court ruling also gave the government the option of asking parliament for an extension.

In a meeting on Thursday morning, parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee gave the government until midnight Tuesday to obtain legislative approval without having to discontinue its use of the spy agency.

Committee chairman Gabi Ashkenazi said the cabinet was meeting on the issue on Sunday, and if it decided not to pursue legislation authorising the programme, the surveillance would be halted immediately.

Ashkenazi added that if the government confirmed it wanted to move forward with legislation and requested more time, parliament would consider prolonging the extension.

But he stressed the need to explore alternative technologies for monitoring possible carriers of the novel coronavirus beyond the Shin Bet's methods.

Last month, the government authorised the spy agency to monitor citizens' mobile phones under emergency powers to combat the pandemic.

Israel, which has a population of around nine million, announced its first coronavirus patient on February 21.

Since then it has confirmed more than 15,870 cases of COVID-19, with 219 deaths.

The health ministry says that more than 8,400 have recovered.

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