U.S. Student Denied Entry to Israel to Be Held at Airport Until Final Ruling on Appeal

The Tel Aviv District Court is set to hear an appeal on the deportation of the 22-year-old American student who has been held in the Ben-Gurion airport detention facility for five days

FILE Photo: Ben Gurion Airport in Israel
Eyal Toeg

The Tel Aviv District Court on Sunday will set a date for its ruling on the appeal of 22-year-old Lara Alqasem against Israel’s ban on her entry to Israel. Alqasem was denied entry on suspicion that she is a BDS supporter, although she received a student visa based on her enrollment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has been held for five days at the detention facility at Ben-Gurion airport, where she is to remain until final disposition of her case.

Alqasem, an American citizen whose grandparents are Palestinian, arrived in Israel on Tuesday night, holding a one-year A2 student visa issued to her by the Israeli Consulate in Miami. She is enrolled as an M.A. student in human rights at the Hebrew University. Despite holding a valid visa, she was detained at the airport because her name was flagged in the computer as a BDS activist by the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

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Alqasem appealed her denial of entry to the appeals tribunal in Tel Aviv. The tribunal first asked the Strategic Affairs Ministry to explain its decision and at a second hearing, the tribunal ruled that it had not found that the ministry had “exceeded its authority in a manner that justified intervention.”

Alqasem’s decision to appeal to the Tel Aviv District Court has now delayed her deportation until the court issues a final ruling.

A report on Alqasem’s activities by the Strategic Affairs Ministry, obtained by Haaretz, included information from five Web links. Four of the five were from Facebook, and one, the main one, was from a right-wing website, Canary Mission. According to the information in the report, classified as “sensitive,” Alqasem was a member of an organization called “Students for Justice in Palestine,” and in 2016–2017, she was president of the local chapter on her campus. During that time, according to the report, the chapter conducted a campaign calling for the boycott of Sabra hummus, the American version of Hummus Tzabar, a writers’ petition calling on a cultural center to refuse sponsorship by Israel for its activities and praising the fact that an international security company had stopped operations in Israel.

22-year-old Lara Alqasem

Alqasem told the appeals tribunal that the chapter in question, of which she had indeed been a member, had only a few members, about five, and that she was not considered “senior” in the national organization, as stated in the criteria for denial of entry based on Israel’s anti-BDS law. Alqasem said that at that time she had personally supported boycotts of Israel and had been active in campaigns, but that she left the organization in 2017 and does not now support BDS. If she did, she told the tribunal, she would not have come to study in Israel. She pledged to the tribunal that while in Israel she would not call for a boycott or participate in BDS activities, either directly or indirectly, and would not visit the occupied territories.

Attorneys for the state countered that the fact that Alqasem deleted her details from social media networks shows that her motives were not legitimate. They also said that she had been a member of a chapter of an organization that is part of a national organization whose key activists are barred entry to Israel under the anti-BDS law.Lecturers who taught Alqasem in the past, including Israelis, submitted letters of support for her to the court. Prof. Tamir Sorek of the Jewish Studies Center at the University of Florida wrote that Alqasem has come under heavy criticism by BDS activists for her decision to study in Israel and that “it is inconceivable that Israel is preventing her from breaking the boycott by means of a law intended to fight the boycott.”

>> Read more: Official documents prove: Israel bans young Americans based on Canary Mission website

Another lecturer, Dror Avner David, who taught Alqasem Hebrew, wrote that she “had never expressed any negative sentiment or anger at Israel” and that her choice of the Hebrew University shows that she does not boycott Israel.

The Hebrew University has also rallied behind Alqasem’s cause. The university’s rector, Prof. Barak Medina, wrote: “Barring entry to students from abroad, especially when this is done at the airport, seriously harms the university’s ties with other universities in the world and causes irreversible damage to international relations.” The decision to bar her entry, Medina wrote, subverted the goal of preventing academic boycotts of Israel. Hebrew University faculty members signed a petition over the weekend calling for Alqasem to be allowed to study in Israel.

Judge Dotan Bergman, who ruled against interfering in the Strategic Affairs Ministry decision, said that the role of the tribunal was not to determine the wisdom of the ministry’s decision. However, he said his deliberations were mainly over the fact that “all the material that the respondent [the state] has presented now to justify its decision could have been presented by easy and simple means when [Alqasem] applied to the consulate in the United States. The respondent failed to do so, approved the petitioner’s request, and remembered to make these simple checks only when she reached the gate of the country and near the time of the opening of the school year.” Bergman said that in so doing, the state not only hurt Alqasem, but its actions “might have repercussions on Israel’s academic standing, as opposed to the declared goal of the fight against BDS.”

Alqasem’s attorney, Yotam Ben-Hillel, told Haaretz: “The law barring entry to critics of Israel’s actions is shameful and it should be abolished. Lara Alqasem’s case deals with the even more shameful way this law is being applied.”

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted his response Friday, saying that Alqasem was a “foreign boycott activist who served as head of a chapter of one of the BDS organizations acting violently” to silence supporters of Israel on campuses in the United States. According to the law, Erdan wrote, citing the ruling of the appeals tribunal, Alqasem should not be allowed into Israel. “No sane country would allow foreigners to enter it who come to hurt its citizens and in any way... The fact that Alqasem made light of the campaigns in which she took part and her organization does not change the truth. She is a boycott activist who wants to harm Israel and the companies in Israel that provide a livelihood for thousands of people.

However, Erdan did not directly answer the questions Haaretz put to him: 1. Why was a visa issued to Alqasem in the first place; 2. Does her status in the students’ group conform to the criteria according to which action should be taken only against key activists; 3. Is a person who supported boycotting Israel in the past, and ceased doing so, to be barred from entry to Israel forever and if not, how can this be decided; 4. Are five links on Google the proper basis for a decision of this kind; 5. Assuming that Alqasem is a BDS supporter today as well, should such a person be kept behind bars until final disposition of their case.

MKs Tamar Zandberg, Mossi Raz and Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) expressed their support over the weekend for Alqasem to study in Israel.

The amendment to the Entry to Israel Law that is the basis for barring the entry of Alqasem, and at least 20 other people over the past year, was passed in March 2017. It denies entry and a visa of any kind to any foreigner or non-permanent resident if “he, or the organization or the body on whose behalf he is active, knowingly issues a public call for a boycott of the State of Israel.”

The Strategic Affairs Ministry believes that the criteria determined in the law, which was advanced as a private member’s bill by MK Roy Folkman (Kulanu) and not by the ministry, in fact restricts its draconian nature and allows flexibility in special cases.