US student in boycott case allowed to stay in Israel, supreme court rules

Alqasem attends a hearing at Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - An American student who was barred entry into Israel under a law against foreign activists who support boycotts of the state over its policies towards the Palestinians was given permission to stay in the country by the Supreme Court on Thursday (Oct 18).

In its ruling, the court criticised Israeli authorities for denying entry to Lara Alqasem, 22, saying their decision gave "the unavoidable impression" that she was barred for her political opinions.

If so, the justices said, it represented "a radical and dangerous step that could lead to the crumbling of the foundations upon which Israel's democracy is built".

Alqasem was refused entry when she flew to Israel on a study visa on Oct 2. Security officials cited her role as president of a small local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida.

Her case touched off a debate in Israel over whether democratic values had been compromised by a 2017 law that bars the entry of foreigners who publicly support boycotts over Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.

Thursday's ruling, seen by Reuters, overturned a lower court decision that initially backed the decision by Israeli authorities.

"The Supreme Court's decision is a victory for free speech, academic freedom, and the rule of law," Alqasem's lawyers said in a statement.

But Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin called the court decision "shameful" and said that with their decision, the justices "were continuing to act against Israeli democracy and the clear lawmaking of the Knesset."

Members of Israel's right-wing government have long criticised the court for being, in their eyes, too liberal in its interventions regarding its policy towards Palestinians.

The Supreme Court accepted Alqasem's lawyers' argument that she had ceased her pro-boycott activity in April 2017, and noted that since then she had engaged in Holocaust studies and had been accepted to a post graduate programme at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, which supported her petition.

"Since the petitioner's actions do not sufficiently warrant banning her entry to Israel, the unavoidable impression is that her political opinions were the reason behind the cancellation of the visa that was granted to her," the ruling said.

"If that is indeed the case, we are talking about a radical and dangerous step."

The court cited in its decision the Hebrew University's contention that barring the entry, at the airport, of a foreign student accepted into an international programme damaged the university's international ties.

However one justice wrote that if Alqasem "returns to her old ways" and promoted a boycott while she was in Israel her stay could be cancelled and she could be expelled.

It was not immediately clear whether the Israeli authorities would appeal the ruling.

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