Israel's Top Court: How Does Lara Alqasem's Deportation Help Battle Against BDS?

Supreme Court weights appeal by U.S. student who has been detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for 15 days for supporting boycotts

U.S. student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at Israel's Supreme Court, Jerusalem, Israel, October 17, 2018.
AFP

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday on the request by American student Lara Alqasem to hear an appeal of the decision to prevent her from entering Israel. Alqasem, 22, has been detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for 15 days over allegations that she is an anti-Israel boycott activist.

Alqasem's attorney asked Justices Neal Hendel, Anat Baron and Uzi Vogelman to consider the entry visa originally issued to Alqasem, and said that the reasoning for barring her from entering the country does not meet the criteria set by the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which state that current "leading activists" working in a "consistent and continuous" manner can be denied entry

>> Opinion: The ban on Lara Alqasem is a gift for BDS, and a disaster for Israel

A representative for Hebrew University, which has joined Alqasem's appeal, told the court that any law limiting freedom of expression must be interpreted in a limited manner. "We chose to join the appeal because of the importance we place on taking in foreign students and researchers," she said. "We are not afraid of Lara Alqasem. Her right to change her mind and to be exposed to life here must be respected."

The representative of the university also raised the possibility that barring Alqasem from Israel "would play into the hands of those who claim that we are an unenlightened country."

Justice Vogelman noted that the university had stated that Alqasam was not a pro-boycott activist and asked in what way refusing entry to her fulfilled the purpose of the law. 

Vogelman asked how the Strategic Affairs Ministry's criteria relating to entry into the country square with the fact that the organization in which Alqasem had been involved, Students for Justice in Palestine, was small, "I don't want to say transitory." In describing Alqasem, Vogelman said: "We have here someone who is not an activist, declares that she is not an activist and is coming here to study. How does this advance the fight against BDS?"

A government representative said there was no need for intervention by a third party in the case and that the interior minister has the authority to prevent a person's entry to the country. Justice Vogelman said the court was aware that the minister has the authority but that he is also subject to judicial review. 

"The law is the law, and the [interior] minister [can exercise] judgment, but is there a sufficient basis for revoking her entry at this stage?" Justice Hendel asked.

Justice Baron noted that there was no evidence presented of Alqasem's current activities. "Just concerns, and it's good that we be concerned, but where do the concerns find expression in the law?"

The justices asked Alqasem's lawyer, Yotam Ben Hillel, if his client currently supports a boycott of Israel and if she is committed to refrain from calling for a boycott, to which Ben Hillel said that Alqasem had explicitly stated at earlier proceedings in the case that she is not a BDS activist and would not call for an anti-Israel boycott while in Israel.

A representative of the state acknowledged at the Supreme Court hearing that the group to which Alqasem belonged "had a small number of activists." When the justices asked whether the state is challenging the contention that the Florida student is no longer a BDS activist, he replied: "We don't know."

On Friday, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected her previous appeal, saying it could not justify intervening in the case and that the government's decision to detain her was reasonable. The court echoed a previous decision by an administrative appeals court.

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 since 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.

In March 2017, the Knesset passed a law that bars from Israel any foreigners who have publicly expressed support for boycotting Israel. The interior minister is responsible for enforcing the law. According to the government, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, usually in compliance with recommendations from the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which monitors the international boycott movement.

Alqasem's attorney, Ben Hillel, said at the previous hearing on her appeal that the 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 Alqasem 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," he said.