Israel Turns to Its Spy Agencies to Combat Coronavirus

Effort includes undercover purchase of testing kits from abroad and phone-tracking to map infections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has mobilized Israel’s intelligence agencies to help contain the new coronavirus, an effort that has involved an undercover purchase of testing kits from abroad and the use of antiterrorism phone-tracking technology to map infections.

An undisclosed number of testing kits acquired Thursday by the foreign spy agency Mossad will be deployed to nationwide drive-in testing locations as Israel seeks to carry out thousands of tests a day, the prime minister said in a broadcast late Thursday.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office called the equipment “required and vital” but declined to say how many kits had been ordered and from which countries. “We are fully utilizing all the state’s capabilities to assist in dealing with the coronavirus, including the Mossad and other bodies,” his office said.

A man wearing a face mask walking in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque inside the almost deserted Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday.


Israel’s Channel 13 and the Jerusalem Post reported that the agency had arranged for 100,000 kits from countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel and expected to bring millions more.

Those reports couldn’t be confirmed independently. Mossad often handles secret diplomacy with countries such as the Gulf Arab states that don’t formally recognize Israel but work with it on regional security challenges.

Itamar Grotto, the deputy health minister, said the imported kits lack a swab component but indicated the problem could be overcome. Mr. Netanyahu said Israel’s testing capacity would grow from several hundred a day to several thousand by next week.

Warning of an outbreak on a par with Italy’s, Mr. Netanyahu ordered Israel into lockdown late Thursday. The country’s nine million people are allowed to leave their homes only for vital missions such as buying food or getting medical treatment. The number of Israelis known to have contracted the virus rose to 705 on Friday morning, up from 427 on Wednesday morning.

Along with testing kits, health officials say Israel will need more ventilators as the number of patients sickened by Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, grows. The Defense Ministry said it has purchased 2,500 ventilators but delivery will take months.

To help meet demand, a team in Israel’s military intelligence branch known as the Technological Unit, or Unit 81, is working with medical professionals to upgrade household BiPap ventilators, which help patients with sleep apnea and other breathing difficulties, into hospital-quality ventilators.

“A prototype is being manufactured in the unit at this moment in order to study it and bring it to wide use,” the Israeli military said in a statement.

Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, is retooling its spyware to meet the medical emergency. In recent days it has deployed a nationwide digital-surveillance program, using technology designed for counterterrorism, to locate people at risk of infection. The program uses cellphone data of people known to be infected to identify who else was close enough to catch the virus.

As a result of the surveillance, the health ministry said 400 Israelis received a text message Wednesday asking them to enter quarantine.

“According to an epidemiological survey, you were near someone sick from coronavirus. You must immediately enter Quarantine for 14 days to protect your relatives and the public,” the text message said.

Shin Bet’s program, authorized by the attorney general and supported by health ministry officials, was criticized by privacy advocates and some lawmakers. The supreme court, acting on a petition by two civil-rights groups, issued an injunction ordering a halt to the program by next Tuesday unless parliament establishes the relevant oversight committees. The parliament was shut Wednesday by its speaker, an ally of Mr. Netanyahu, in a dispute with opposition parties over control of its committees.

Authorities in some Asian countries have deployed similar surveillance methods and said they contributed to containing the virus. South Korean health authorities can sift through credit-card records, CCTV footage, mobile-phone location services, public-transport cards and immigration records to pin down the travel histories of those infected or at risk. China monitors individuals with data provided by telecom firms, the railway bureau and airlines. Hong Kong monitors families quarantined at home with electronic wristbands. Taiwan tracks people who are under home quarantine using their mobile-phone signals.