The Tel Aviv District Court discussed on Thursday morning the appeal of an American student who was barred entry to Israel over alleged ties to the boycott, divesment and sanctions movement.
Lara Alqasem, 22, was accepted as a graduate student at the Hebrew University but was barred from entering the country and detained at Ben-Gurion Airport on October 2 because the Israeli authorities claim she supports an anti-Israel boycott. Alqasem is being held at a facility at the airport despite obtaining a student visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami.
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Many reporters as well as Meretz MKs Esawi Freige and Mossi Raz attended the hearing.
At its conclusion, Alqasem was returned to the holding facility at Ben-Gurion International Airport for foreigners who have been denied entry to Israel, where she has been detained for nine days. The judges did not issue a ruling and it will be sent to all the parties involved later.
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Alqasem's lawyer, Yotam Ben Hillel, said at the hearing that "boycott law states 'deliberately avoiding economic, cultural and academic ties because of its association with Israel.' Alqasem came to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was accepted, paid money and issued a visa. How does this work with a boycott call? The state did not answer that."
Revoking a visa requires strong evidence, Ben Hillel said, "which is not the case here. She invested money and time in moving to Israel. She doesn't have a job to return to in the U.S. and at this point she can't start studying in the U.S."
Ben Hillel said she is 22-year-old woman is being portrayed in a fantastical manner as a senior activist in the BDS movement. “She was a member in a small organization that at its peak numbered eight people.”
“She bore the title ‘president,’ in quotation marks. We have brought letters that testify to it. The activity was limited and they did not bring calls by her for a boycott. All the same battalions of Google searchers in the Strategic Affairs Ministry, pick your hands up for a moment from the keyboard and your head from the screen. Here is a 22-year-old. During this period, she was 19 or 20. When did she have time to be a central activist, as the criteria require for ‘consistent and long-term support for a boycott? This is the demon that you have created,” said Ben Hillel.
In response, Yossi Zadok, the attorney representing the state, said in the attempts to minimize her involvement by invoking Alqasem’s age and the number of members of her organization was irrelevant, because campuses are the center of BDS activity and by its nature the movement is led by young people. “The language of the law does not require the success of the activities, only the participation itself, hesaid.”
Zadok also said an indication exists as to Alqasem’s BDS activities from early this year. “The use of the present tense is irrelevant. It includes someone who was [active] a short time ago. There is an indication of her activity in early 2018,” said Zadok.
In response, Ben Hillel said this is the first time such allegations have arisen. "How long will a person be considered a BDS activist? Forever?" Ben Hillel asked.
The state said the claim is based on Alqasem's attendance according to Facebook events, adding that as she erased her profile, "We have no way of showing it as evidence."
Ben Hillel responded: "I'm not a big Facebook rat, but if someone clicks 'attending' on Facebook – does it mean he actually participated in the event? Is this the evidence you have?"
Zadok also told the court that the BDS movement chapter on Alqasem’s campus expressed support for a released terrorist, but according to the state’s response to the appeals panel last week, this expression of support by the chapter is from 2014 – when Alqasem was not its president.
Representatives of Hebrew University told the court that the refusal to allow Alqasem’s entry has achieved the opposite of fighting the boycott movement.
“They allocated a lot of money to improve the international links of Israeli academia. The goal is for foreign students to return afterwards to their homes and help us fight boycotts. In this case, we need to ask – will preventing the entry of Lara, who came to study with us, strengthen Israel in this struggle? We think that it is exactly the opposite. She actually could have helped us fight BDS and strengthen Israel’s reputation," they said.
We also need to understand that the revocation of the visa on her arrival in Israel has serious implications for the decision of students and researchers who are considering studying in Israel," university reprasentatives added. "They will say ‘the visa we received legally doesn’t promise entry’ – and they are changing their lives for it.”
The hearing was originally scheduled to be held on Sunday, October 14 – which is the first day of the new academic year at Hebrew University. But the court granted a request from Alqasem’s attorney to move up the hearing to Thursday.
Alqasem appealed the decision not to allow her to enter Israel to the Entry to Israel Law Review Court in the Justice Ministry, which supervises decisions the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. The appeals panel rejected her appeal last week and she then appealed this decision to the Tel Aviv District Court, which is the case that was heard on Thursday.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and J Street U on Wednesday slammed Alqasem's detention, calling on Israel to release the student immediately.
URJ wrote it is "deeply troubled by Ms. Alqasem’s detention," going on to say that " this sad and unnecessary episode has already caused considerable embarrassment to Israel and threatened the ability of Hebrew University to engage in global scholarship. Ms. Alqasem should be allowed to study at Hebrew University and see the country for herself."
Earlier Wednesday, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's request to join the appeal against Alqasem's deportation was approved.
The Tel Aviv District Court ruled on Monday that Alqasem will remain in detention until a final ruling is made on her appeal. Judge Kobi Vardi noted in his ruling that he did not see a reason to order Alqasem’s release from detention at the airport “until the claims against her regarding the risk and possible harm to the State of Israel are clarified.