After Hours of Waiting, Israeli Lawmakers Allowed to Visit American Student Detained at Airport

Lara Alqasem, 22, has been held in Israel for the past five days after being denied entry over her alleged BDS activism

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg and MKS Esawi Freige and Mossi Raz visit detained American student Lara Alqasem, October 7, 2018.

The Population and Immigration Authority prevented opposition lawmakers from visiting an American student who is detained at a facility at Ben-Gurion Airport after she was denied entry to Israel over her alleged activism for the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement.

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg and lawmakers Mossi Raz and Essawi Freige, who arrived at the facility to visit Alqasem, were not allowed in. The three lawmakers refused to leave the facility and drafted a letter to the interior minister asking him to allow them in. Four hours later, the three lawmakers were allowed in to visit the student, thanks to the intervention of Interior Minister Arye Dery, who conditioned the visit on a long-delayed escort.

Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American citizen whose grandparents are Palestinian, arrived in Israel last week with a one-year A2 student visa issued to her by the Israeli Consulate in Miami. She is enrolled as an MA student in human rights at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Despite holding a valid visa, Alqasem was detained at the airport because the Strategic Affairs Ministry flagged her as a BDS activist.

Merez leader Tamar Zandberg, left, and lawmakers Esawi Freige and Mossi Raz, right, wait to visit Lara Alqasem, October 7, 2018.

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

The law states that lawmakers should be allowed to enter any public place, unless if there's a clear security threat. Immigration officials claim that according to a new regulation, only members of the Knesset State Control Committee are allowed to enter detention facilities. However, the airport detention facility is not officially defined as such.

While visiting Alqasem, MK Essawi Freige wrote on Twitter: "At this moment, meeting with Lara Alqasem. Detained for six days but is still optimistic. Hoping that the court will find some sense and understand that anyone who enrolls at an Israeli university does not boycott Israel."

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry denied the request of a group of lecturers from the Hebrew University to visit Alqasem at the detention facility, where she is being held until a final decision on her issue will be made.

The lecturers explained to the ministry that because Alqasem is a young woman without relatives in Israel, they wanted to make sure she is doing well and not lacking anything she might need during her detention. So far, only Alqasem's attorneys have been allowed to visit her. Alqasem is allowed one shower and one call on a pay phone per day.

An official at the U.S. Embassy in Israel said earlier on Sunday that the United States was aware of Alqasem's detention. "We are aware of the case and our Embassy is providing consular assistance," the official told Haaretz.

Alqasem’s decision to appeal to the Tel Aviv District Court has delayed her deportation until a final ruling is made. The court will set a date later on Sunday for its ruling on her appeal.

A report about Alqasem’s activities, which was compiled by the Strategic Affairs Ministry and obtained by Haaretz, cited information taken from five web links. Four of the five were from Facebook, and the main one was from a contentious right-wing website, Canary Mission.

According to the information in the report, which was classified as “sensitive,” Alqasem was a member of Students for Justice in Palestine and headed the group's local chapter on her campus from 2016 to 2017. During that time, the report states, 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.

Alqasem told the appellate court that the chapter in question, of which she had indeed been a member, had only a few members and that she was not considered a “senior official” 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 the boycott of Israel and had been active in campaigns supporting this cause, but noted that she had left the organization in 2017 and does not currently support BDS. If she did, she told the court, she would not have come to study in Israel. She pledged that she would not call for a boycott or participate in BDS activities, either directly or indirectly, and would not visit the occupied territories while in Israel.