US student said to have supported boycott campaign against Israel goes to court over entry ban

US student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv on Oct 11, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

TEL AVIV (AFP) - A US student banned from entering Israel for allegedly having supported a pro-Palestinian boycott of the country appeared in court on Thursday (Oct 11) to challenge the decision.

Lara Alqasem, 22, has been held at an immigration facility since her arrival more than a week ago, but is hoping to be allowed to enter for the start of the academic term next week.

She was refused entry at Israel's Ben-Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Oct 2 despite having a visa to study for a master's degree in human rights at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

It is the latest in a series of cases drawing criticism of an Israeli law barring boycott supporters that opponents say violates freedom of expression.

Israeli authorities have also come under criticism in recent months over what some have seen as the politically motivated questioning of certain foreigners seeking to enter the country.

Alqasem has chosen to challenge the entry ban rather than fly back to the United States.

Her lawyers defended her at a hearing in Tel Aviv district court on Thursday, saying the government had no grounds for barring her.

"She was accepted by the university, got a visa from the ministry of interior," said lawyer Yotam Ben Hilel.

"Now she is barred on the basis of searches in Google in which they found scraps of information she may or may not have said and an organisation she may or may not be linked to."

The hearing was adjourned with the judge saying he would inform the lawyers of his decision later.

In March 2017, Israel's parliament passed a law banning the entry of supporters of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, inspired by measures against South Africa before the fall of apartheid.

Alqasem, reportedly of Palestinian descent, is said to have been president of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine while an undergraduate student at the University of Florida.

The group has supported boycott campaigns against Israel.


Alqasem has reportedly said she has distanced herself from the movement, and supporters point to her willingness to enter Israel to study as proof.

The university has called on the authorities to allow her in to study, while professors from the University of Florida have also supported her.

A professor of Jewish language and culture who taught Alqasem in Florida wrote in a letter to the editor of Israeli newspaper Haaretz that she was "an outstanding student, curious, with an open mind".

Dror Abend-David added that she was "someone who very much wanted to study international relations in Israel to develop her own opinion on the conflict."

The United States said Wednesday it supports freedom of expression and that its embassy in Jerusalem was offering Alqasem consular assistance.

"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," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters.

"Our strong opposition to the boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel is well-known."

But he added: "Israel is a sovereign nation that can determine who enters."

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan has said that he would consider allowing Alqasem to take up her university place if she publicly denounces BDS.

There have been several high-profile cases involving the law barring boycott supporters as well as the questioning of foreigners seeking to enter.

In May, an Israeli court suspended an expulsion order for Human Rights Watch's country director, Omar Shakir, whom authorities ordered to leave after accusing him of having previously supported a boycott. That case is still ongoing.

Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish American journalist, said he faced extensive and pointed questioning when seeking to enter Israel for a private visit in August.

A supporter of a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, Beinart said he was asked repeatedly for names of organisations with which he is associated.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Beinart's questioning was an "administrative mistake."

"Israel is an open society which welcomes all - critics and supporters alike," Netanyahu said.

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