Israel maintains use of surveillance technology on protesters

Israel’s attorney general has confirmed security agency Shin Bet’s use of cellphone tracking technology to monitor and threaten Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site last year

JERUSALEM — Israel’s attorney general has confirmed the Shin Bet security agency’s use of cellphone tracking technology to monitor and threaten Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site last year.

The decision, which came on Tuesday, drew heavy criticism from the civil rights group which took issue with the use of the technology. The group warned that this would have a “chilling effect” on the country’s Arab minority.

The attorney general’s decision followed a complaint about a series of text messages sent last May to hundreds of Palestinians at the height of one of the city’s most turbulent times in years. At the time, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli police at Al Aqsa Mosque in violence that helped spark an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Using its tracking technology, the Shin Bet texted people who were determined to be in the area of ​​the clashes and told them “we will hold you accountable” for the violence.

The recipients included both Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of Israel. While some recipients had participated in the clashes, many others, such as people who lived, worked or prayed in the area, received the message by mistake and said they were surprised or frightened by the message.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a civil society group, filed a complaint with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office, urging him to end the use of the technology. He cited the use of the tool on a large group of people and the threatening language of the text.

In its response, the attorney general’s office acknowledged that there were problems with the message, both with its language and because the mass distribution included unintended targets. But he said the use of the technology was a legitimate security tool and the security department had revised its procedures to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

“After discussions with us on this subject, lessons were learned within the security agency and directives were formulated in various aspects with the aim of preventing the recurrence of problems like this,” says the director. ‘opinion. He said the office does not anticipate any further involvement in the matter.

Tuesday was the last day of Mandelblit’s six-year term. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or ACRI, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“They say they have the power to keep sending these kinds of texts to people,” said Gil Gan-Mor, who leads the group’s human rights in the digital age unit. “We think differently.”

He said authorities had the tools to investigate and prosecute those suspected of violence, but sending threatening messages was not the way to maintain security.

“Obviously it will have a chilling effect, to say the least, on doing legitimate activities, like going to a protest or going to pray somewhere,” he said. The group was studying the decision and would decide in the coming days whether to file an appeal with the Israeli Supreme Court, he added.

ACRI has already filed legal challenges against the government’s use of the same Shin Bet tracking technology as a contact tracing tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus early in the pandemic.

Israel’s Supreme Court ultimately limited the tool’s use to specific cases, and studies have shown it to be largely ineffective in identifying people with COVID-19.

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