An American graduate student who was refused entry into Israel over allegations that she promotes a boycott of the Jewish state appealed the decision Thursday before a court in Tel Aviv.
No ruling was given on Lara Alqasem’s case, and Judge Erez Yekuel said he would let the sides know his decision. Alqasem has been held in detention at an immigration facility at Ben Gurion Airport and is to remain there until the court delivers its ruling. Israeli officials have said she is free to leave the country and go back to the US.
The 22-year-old American, who has Palestinian grandparents, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport last week with a valid student visa and was registered to study human rights at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
But she was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on suspicions that she was an activist in the boycott movement. Israel insists she can leave at any time but must renounce the BDS boycott movement if she wishes to be reconsidered for admission.
Israel enacted a law last year banning entry for any foreigner who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel.” It has come under heavy criticism for its handling of Alqasem’s case.
Alqasem, from the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Southwest Ranches, Florida, is a former president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. The group is associated with the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Alqasem appeared calm, mostly keeping her hands on her knees during the court hearing, but smiling when she was surrounded by journalists and photographers.
Her lawyers said in court she had not been involved with SJP for more than a year and a half. The government countered that she had been involved with the group earlier this year.
When asked for evidence of her involvement, the state’s lawyers said she had marked on Facebook that she was “attending” two SJP events, but that the page had subsequently been deleted and they did not have a screenshot.
Alqasem’s lawyers ridiculed this evidence, saying that clicking the “attending” button on Facebook did not actually mean she had attended the events.
“She was accepted by the university, got a visa from the ministry of interior,” said her lawyer, Yotam Ben Hillel. “Now she is barred on the basis of searches in Google in which they found scraps of information she may or may not have said and an organization she may or may not be linked to.”
“I think we have a good case. The state’s argument and evidence was weak, but I’ve learned not to be optimistic,” Ben-Hillel said after the hearing.
Hebrew University, which joined Alqasem in her petition, said that the government was harming its anti-BDS efforts by denying her entry. It said that a goal was for foreign students to return to their homes after time in Israel and help fight against the boycott movement.
The university’s lawyer also said that the ban on Alqasem would have a negative effect on other students planning on coming to study in Israel in the future; they would be reluctant to come knowing that even if they had a student visa they could be denied entry on arrival.
The university’s president, Prof. Asher Cohen, said earlier this week that Alqasem was enrolled for a year-long program and that this constituted the opposite of BDS activity. “She wants to come here and learn… She says she’s coming to study for a year,” he said. “That activity of hers is against BDS”
Asher Fredman, a senior official in the Strategic Affairs Ministry, said that Alqasem was being denied entry because of her past activities, not her opinions. “We have clear criteria,” he said. “We believe that Miss Alqasem meets those criteria based on her actions, and the actions of the organization of which she was a senior leader over several years.”
BDS supporters say that in urging businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel, they are using nonviolent means to resist unjust policies toward Palestinians. Israel says the movement masks its motives to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state.
Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud), whose ministry is responsible for countering the BDS movement, has described Students for Justice in Palestine as an extremist organization. “We don’t want to see their activists coming to Israel and trying to use our infrastructure to harm us and destroy us,” he said this week.
On Monday, a group of university heads in Israel sent a letter to Erdan, arguing that holding or deporting Alqasem could end up hurting Israel by giving backing to critics of the country, Haaretz reported.
Former professors have described Alqasem as a curious and open-minded student. The Association for Israel Studies along with Jewish groups in the United States have come to her defense.
A pair of dovish Israeli lawmakers, Mossi Raz and Issawi Frej of Meretz, also attended Thursday’s hearing to protest Alqasem’s lengthy detention. Raz called on Erdan to free her and stop the “snowball” of political detentions at the airport.
“Stop this circus, you are causing grave damage to Israel’s image,” he said.
The United States said Wednesday that it supports freedom of expression and was in touch with Alqasem. “As a general principle, we value freedom of expression even in cases where we don’t agree with the political views expressed and this is such a case,” State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters. “Our strong opposition to the boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel is well-known,” he said. But he added: “Israel is a sovereign nation that can determine who enters.”
In her appeal, Alqasem has argued that she never actively participated in boycott campaigns, and promised the court that she would not promote them in the future. “We’re talking about someone who simply wants to study in Israel, who is not boycotting anything,” said lawyer Ben-Hillel. “She’s not even part of the student organization anymore.”
Alqasem’s family said Israel was exaggerating her involvement in SJP, saying she only belonged to the campus group for a semester. In an interview from Florida, her mother, Karen Alqasem, said “She may have been critical of some of Israel’s policies in the past but she respects Israeli society and culture. To her, this isn’t a contradiction.”