Israel upholds ban on US student Lara Alqasem over BDS support

An Israeli court has upheld a ban on an American student refused entry to the country over her alleged support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS).

Lara Alqasem, 22, had filed an appeal with the Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday after being held for more than a week since arriving from the United States to begin a master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, despite having a valid student visa.

Israel was criticised for its handling of Alqasem’s case.

A group of some 300 international academics published a statement in the Guardian decrying Israel’s action as “an attack on academic freedom” and calling for Alqasem to be allowed to pursue her studies at the Hebrew University.

J Street, a US advocacy group working to promote a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, published an open letter to Minister Gilad Erdan saying the action taken against Alqasem showed the “deeply counterproductive and anti-democratic nature” of the Israeli government’s approach to BDS and to criticism of its policies.

Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist, wrote in the Washington Post that Alqasem’s case was “part of a trend by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to turn law enforcement, and the law itself, into tools for policing opinions”.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Alqasem – who is of Palestinian descent – was offered entry to Israel if she renounced the BDS movement but Yotam Ben-Hillel, Alqasem’s lawyer, is said to have stridently refused the offer.

“How can she be a BDS supporter if she wants to attend Hebrew University?” Ben-Hillel lamented, adding that Alqasem had been criticised by her former connections with the movement for wanting to attend the Israeli university – which they say amounts to a de-facto recognition of Israel.

A senior Israeli minister on Wednesday defended the government’s handling of Alqasem’s case.

Gilad Erdan, who oversees the government’s efforts to counter the Palestinian-led boycott movement, said that Israel has the right to protect itself and decide who enters its borders.

On Tuesday, Erdan said he would be open to changing his position if Alqasem personally denounces the boycott of Israel.

The BDS movement started in 2005 after a call issued by Palestinian civil society groups for “people of conscience” around the world to help end Israel’s abuses against Palestinians by cutting off cultural, academic and economic ties with the state.

Alqasem, from the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Southwest Ranches, Florida, is a former president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The Hebrew University has called on the authorities to allow her in to study and has supported her appeal.

Alqasem’s detention, which has lasted for more than a week, is the longest anyone has been held in a boycott-related case.

While waiting for her appeal to be heard, Alqasem has been spending her days in a closed area with little access to a telephone, no internet and a bed that was infested with bedbugs, according to people who have spoken to her.

Israel enacted a law last year banning any foreigner who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel” from entering the country. It also identified 20 activist groups from around the world whose members can be denied entry upon arrival.

“As a general principle, we value freedom of expression even in cases where we don’t agree with the political views expressed and this is such a case,” US State Department deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, told reporters on Wednesday.

“Our strong opposition to the boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel is well-known,” he said.

“Israel is a sovereign nation that can determine who enters.”

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