Israel’s Attorney General backed the Shin Bet security agency’s use of mobile phone tracking technology to monitor and threaten Palestinian demonstrators at Jerusalem’s most secret holy site last year.
Tuesday’s decision drew sharp criticism from a civil rights group that disputed 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 action comes in response to a complaint about a series of text messages sent last May to hundreds of Palestinians in the midst of one of the city’s most turbulent periods in years. At the time, Palestinian demonstrators clashed with Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, leading to an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Using its tracking technology, the Shin Bet sent out a text message to people who were supposed to be in the area of the clashes and told them that “we will hold you accountable” for the acts of violence.
The recipients included both Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of Israel. While some recipients were involved in the clashes, many others, such as people who lived, worked or prayed in the area, misunderstood the message 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 stop using 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 with the fact that the mass dissemination included unintended purposes. But the company said that the use of this technology was a legitimate security tool and that the security team reviewed its procedures to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
“Following discussions with us on this topic, the security agency learned lessons and formulated guidelines in various aspects in order to prevent the recurrence of such problems,” the conclusion says. It says that the department does not plan further intervention in this 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 authority to keep sending these messages to people,” said Gil Gan-Mor, head of the group’s human rights division in the digital age. “We think differently.”
He said the authorities have the tools to investigate and prosecute those suspected of violence, but sending threatening messages is not the way to maintain security.
“Obviously, this will have a deterrent effect, to say the least, on taking legal action, such as participating in protests or praying somewhere,” he said. He added that the group is studying the decision and will decide in the coming days whether to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court.
ACRI has previously filed legal challenges against the government’s use of the same Shin Bet tracing technology as a contact tracing tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus early in the pandemic.
The Israeli Supreme Court ultimately limited the tool’s use to specific cases, and studies have shown it to be largely ineffective at identifying people with COVID-19.