Israel's Netanyahu accused of using coronavirus outbreak to 'become a dictator'

Israel's Netanyahu accused of using coronavirus outbreak to 'become a dictator'
Bringing in Shin Bet and enhanced surveillance on top of ensuring the postponement of his corruption trial has ignited fierce criticism from Netanyahu's rivals.
3 min read
18 March, 2020
Netanyahu attends the opening of the deserted Knesset on March 16 [Getty]
Israelis facing increasingly draconian measures in the face of the coronavirus outbreak are accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of using the crisis in order to consolidate his authoritarian hold on power.

Opposition figures have lashed out at the veteran premier, who is clinging on to power after a third election produced no clear results on who should form a government, after he announced that state security agency Shin Bet would be deployed to tackle the spread of the virus and the postponement of his corruption trial, which the court has said is a non-urgent matter.

In a statement, the court noted that given the coronavirus pandemic it had been instructed to hear "only urgent matters", adding that the first hearing of Netanyahu's trial - which was meant to begin on Tuesday - will be postponed until 24 May.

Shutdown and surveillance

The Israeli government rolled out drastic measures to slow down the spread of COVID-19 on Tuesday, including using surveillance technology to track coronavirus patients and enforce those they have contact with into quarantine.

Critics have also said his deployment of Shin Bet is without any external or parliamentary oversight, which has "opened Israel's door to a totalitarian state", as one commentator wrote.

"We started today using the digital technology that detects those who come in contact with coronavirus patients," Netanyahu said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

"We will send these people into isolation. These will be large numbers. Isolation is not a recommendation - it is mandatory, and we will enforce it without compromise."

The government has already enforced quarantine on tens of thousands of citizens, and closed down parts of the country not to mention swathes of the occupied West Bank. 

Opponents have already called out the Israeli government for exploiting coronavirus containment measures to expedite illegal settlement expansion and annexation of parts of the territory.

Indeed, the shutdown emulates how the Israeli military imposes lockdowns on the Palestinian territories, although Israelis are yet to be coerced into following the new measures.

The surveillance technology used is also the same as that deployed against Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The leader of Israel's Arab-majority Joint List party, Ayman Odeh, criticised the surveillance measures as a step too far.

"The Joint List will support every justified step that will protect public health and the stability of the economy. Unsupervised surveillance of civilians is not one of them," he wrote on Twitter.

The former justice minister and now third-in-command in the rival Blue and White Party, Moshe Yaalon, also accused the prime minister of taking advantage of the outbreak for "personal political needs".

"Whoever criticised us for warning we would turn into Erdogan’s Turkey should digest and internalise the cynical exploitation of the coronavirus, for personal political needs, by a defendant before his trial,” Ya’alon tweeted.

So far, 427 Israelis and 44 Palestinians have been infected with the novel coronavirus, but health authorities fear the true number of cases could be in the thousands as many people do not show symptoms and testing has been limited.

No deaths have yet been registered. 

Netanyahu’s rival for the premiership Benny Gantz was on Monday given a mandate to form a government, just a day after Netanyahu had proposed a six-month unity government.

It is unclear whether Gantz will be able to bring enough parties into a coalition, but has also invited Netanyahu into a similar unity-style government in order to tackle the virus crisis.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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