Israeli Court Delays Deportation of American Student, Demands State to Explain

Border authority said 22-year-old student, whose grandparents are Palestinian, was denied entry 'because of boycott activity.' Ministry says she was president of 'BDS branch' at university

Passport control at Ben Gurion Airport
Eyal Toueg

An administrative appeals tribunal on immigration delayed on Wednesday the deportation of an American student who had been denied entry into Israel, ruling that Israel must let the tribunal know by Thursday morning whether it will let her into the country.

Israel prevented on Tuesday the entry of Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American student whose grandparents are Palestinian, despite her having recently been granted an A/2 Student Visa for her masters' degree in the Hebrew University. 

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority said entry was denied "because of boycott activity," adding she would remain at the airport until her appeal against the deportation is heard.

In its decision, Judge Dotan Bergman said that during the appeal proceedings, information was revealed that Alqasem was only "minimally involved in the past in boycott organizations" and that she had stated that "she is not a member in any boycott organizations nor does she intend to continue to participate in them."

Alqasem's visa was granted by the Israeli consulate in Miami, and is valid for a year. However, when she landed in Ben-Gurion International Airport Tuesday night, she was refused entry into Israel.

The judge also mentioned that given that the Israeli consulate gave Alqasem an entrance visa, the consulate could have discovered information on her involvement ahead of time "through a simple search in databases, in a way that would have prevented her arrival to Israel."

Finally, the judge demanded that the state clarify the distinction between denying entry into Israel in advance and canceling an entrance visa upon arrival, as in this case. The judge also asked the state to refer to a letter submitted by the rector of the Hebrew University, where Alqasem came to study.

The rector, Prof. Barak Medina, said that the Hebrew University operates several international programs in cooperation with universities abroad and that "denying entry to foreign students who have been accepted to such programs, especially when it happens at the airport after they already received a student visa, severely harms the university's relationships with other universities around the world and causes irreversible damage to international ties that the university cultivates."

The tribunal that gave this decision decides on appeals submitted on decisions made by the Population and Immigration Authority or the Minister of Interior under the Entry in Israel Law regarding entry, exit, staying or residency in Israel.

In response to the tribunal proceedings, the Strategic Affairs Ministry said that Alqasem was denied entry due to her "consistent activity against Israel, according to Ammendment 28 to the Entry to Israel Law."

The ministry explained that between 2016-2017 Alqasem served as president of Students for Justice in Palestine at Universtiy of Florida. The ministry called the student group a "BDS branch." The ministry added that the previous year, 2014-2015, Alqasem served as deputy president and member of the same student group. 

The ministry continued to explain that during her tenure, Students for Justice in Palestine promoted a boycott of Israeli companies and "worked to harm Israel through a cultural boycott." According to the ministry, "SJP calls for boycotts on campuses in North America, creates a violent, anti-Israeli atmosphere and works against pro-Israel activists."

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority said the approval of the visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami was a result of "lack of coordination" with missions around the world.

According to Israel's Strategic Affairs Ministry, Lara Alqasem was a member of an organization called "National Students for Justice in Palestine."

Yotam Ben Hillel, Alqasem's attorney, said the official cause was "prevention of illegal immigration," despite the aforementioned visa, and also "concern for public order." Alqasem said her interviewers claimed she was mentioned on the Internet as a BDS activist.

Alqasem also said she was showed an photo of herself taken from the right-wing website Canary Mission, which claims to track and document "people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses."

She told Haaretz that her interviewers, three men and a woman, inquired about her ethnicity and the names of her father and grandfather.

MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) tweeted in response: "The randomness in which the authorities function is unbearable. Lara Alqasem's entry was denied despite having received a student visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami under the pretext that she is active in boycott organizations. It's a stupid law, and a harmful policy. I appeal to the interior minister to let her in."

Cody O’Rourke, one of the several people who heard about the detention and decided to be present in the courtroom, said: “What we saw today was courage: A young, female Palestinian-American who understood that by the very nature of what she embodies, willfully decided to head back into Israeli detention for the sake of not only Palestinian rights, but everyone who defends the basic liberties of freedom of speech and political thought - knowing the odds are stacked against here."

The activist continued: "I hope that the nuance isn’t lost here. She had the choice to fight and give up her freedom for the sake of a better tomorrow, or simply accept the oppressive policies of the State of Israel and head back to the United States. She willfully chose detention. Justice will never be had without sacrifice.”