Minister rejects US student’s promise not to promote BDS while in Israel

Gilad Erdan says letter sent by Lara Alqasem’s lawyers failed to renounce past actions or vow not to engage in such activities in the future

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

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

Israel’s strategic affairs minister said Thursday evening that he had rejected a letter sent to him by the lawyers of US student Lara Alqasem 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 regarding the student, who has been refused entry into the country over allegations that she supports the BDS movement.

“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.”

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 boycott movement if she wishes to be reconsidered for admission.

On Thursday morning, Alqasem appealed the decision before a court in Tel Aviv. No ruling was given, 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.

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 wasn’t enough because Omar Barghouti, the 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,” he 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 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, 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.

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.

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 a tailwind to critics of the country, Haaretz reported.

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 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.”

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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