Judge: 'Any self-respecting state defends its own interests'

Court upholds entry ban on US student accused of supporting Israel boycott

Tel Aviv judge rejects Lara Alqasem’s appeal, says government acting legally to deny her entry; Hebrew U. denounces decision; she can appeal to Supreme Court

US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv District Court on October 11, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)
US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv District Court on October 11, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Tel Aviv District Court on Friday upheld a ban on a US student refused entry and held at the airport for 10 days over her alleged support for anti-Israel boycott efforts, saying the state was acting legitimately to protect itself.

She now faces deportation, but will be allowed to stay until at least Sunday, so that she can appeal her case to Israel’s Supreme Court if she so chooses.

The case of Lara Alqasem has been one of the most resonant and controversial since a 2017 Israeli law banned entry to supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates a boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.

On Thursday morning, Alqasem appeared in court to appeal the decision to prevent her entering for a study program at Hebrew University. Announcing its decision Friday, the judge said that the government’s entry ban was in accordance with the law.

In its ruling, the court said that “any self-respecting state defends its own interests and those of its citizens, and has the right to fight against the actions of a boycott… as well as any attacks on its image.”

Alqasem, from the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suburb of Southwest Ranches, 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.

The judge, Erez Yekuel, found that there was “no disputing” that Alqasem from 2014-17 was a member of an organization that called to boycott Israel, and for two years was the president of its Florida campus chapter, and that the organization allegedly urged the “boycott of Israeli society” and expressed support for those who carried out activities to harm Israel.

He cited contradictions in her testimony, noted that she had wiped her social media history, and found that the state had the right to bar someone who sought to harm the country’s economy and image.

The 22-year-old American, who has Palestinian grandparents, landed at Ben Gurion Airport last week with a valid student visa; she was registered to study a human rights one-year program at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

But she was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on allegations that she was an activist in the boycott movement. She has been held at an immigration facility at the airport while she sought to fight the entry ban. Israel said she could leave at any time but would have to renounce the boycott movement if she wished to be reconsidered for admission.

The Hebrew University, which had supported her appeal, condemned Friday’s decision.

“Alqasem decided to study and live in Israel against the principles of the boycott and even stated her opposition to BDS,” the university said. “We are convinced this decision does not help our struggle, and even harms academic efforts in Israel to draw students and researchers from overseas.”

The court ruling came a day after Israel’s strategic affairs minister said he had rejected a letter sent to him by Alqasem’s lawyers promising she wouldn’t participate in boycott activities during her stay in Israel.

Gilad Erdan told Channel 10 that the letter failed to comply with criteria he had detailed.

“The text doesn’t comply with what I said,” Erdan said. “It didn’t say she renounces what she did in the past or that she promises not to do so in the future. It said, more or less, that during the period of her studies in Israel she won’t be involved in boycott activities.”

Erdan alleged that the letter’s text “reveals the fact that she backs the ideology of the boycott and isolation of the State of Israel.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Erdan said Alqasem’s promise not to promote boycotts during her studies in Israel was not sufficient, and noted that Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian founder of BDS, had studied at Tel Aviv University and received a residence permit.

“I want those boycott activists to understand that their actions come with a price,” Erdan said. “I’m not putting them in jail, not doing anything physically to them, but they won’t enter Israel, gather information and misrepresent it around the world.”

Israel enacted the law last year banning entry for any foreigner who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel.”

Erdan said that Alqasem had received her visa to study in Israel before authorities discovered her ties with boycott movements. He added that her claim in court that she hadn’t recently been involved in such activities was “irrelevant.”

Illustrative: Students for Justice in Palestine cause disruption at pro-Israel event at UCLA. (Facebook screenshot)

The Hebrew University, which joined Alqasem in her petition, has said that the government is harming its anti-BDS efforts by denying her entry. It said that a better goal would be for foreign students to return to their homes after time in Israel and help fight against the boycott movement.

Rejecting the widespread criticism that the case harms Israel’s image and the anti-BDS battle, Erdan said Thursday that “every day, thousands of people are stopped at the entrance to the United States and Britain, and nobody in the hypocritical international media writes articles about it or questions [authorities] on why they decided it will maybe harm national security.”

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 is anti-Semitic and masks its motives to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state.

American Lara Alqasem, center, sits in a courtroom prior to a hearing at the district court in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The US said Wednesday that it supports freedom of expression and was in touch with Alqasem, but the decision on whether to let her in rested with Israel.

“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 her lawyer. “She’s not even part of the student organization anymore.”

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.

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.”

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