US student challenges Israeli entry ban in court

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US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv district Court on Thursday. — AFP

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

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.

Lara Alqasem, 22, arrived at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport on Oct. 2 to study for a master’s degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but was not allowed to enter despite having a visa.

She has been held at an immigration facility, choosing 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 organization 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.

Israeli media has quoted her mother, Karen Alqasem, as saying that she had enrolled for a one-year master’s course in human rights at Hebrew University.

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 to 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 on 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. — AFP


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