JERUSALEM – In a first-of-its-kind case, Israel has held an American graduate student at its international airport for a whole week, accusing her of supporting a Palestinian-led boycott movement against the Jewish state.
Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American citizen with Palestinian grandparents, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport last Tuesday with a valid student visa.
But she was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on suspicions that she supports a campaign that calls for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel.
An Israeli court has ordered that she remain in custody while she appeals. The weeklong detention is the longest anyone has been held in a boycott-related case, and it was not immediately clear on Tuesday when a decision would be made.
Alqasem is a former president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that supports the boycott movement.
The grassroots boycott campaign, known as BDS, has targeted Israeli businesses, cultural institutions and universities in what it says is nonviolent resistance to unjust and racist Israeli policies. But Israel says its true goal is to delegitimize and even destroy the country.
Israel enacted a law last year banning any foreigner who “knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel” from entering the country.
“Lara served as president of a chapter of one of the most extreme and hate-filled anti-Israel BDS groups in the U.S.,” said Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who is charge of the Israeli government’s efforts against the boycott group. “Israel will not allow entry to those who work to harm the country, whatever their excuse.”
On Tuesday, Erdan floated a possible compromise, saying in a radio interview that he would drop his efforts to expel her if she apologizes and renounces her BDS support.
The ministry says that during Alqasem’s involvement with Students for Justice in Palestine, the club advocated a boycott against Sabra hummus, an Israeli-owned brand of chickpea dip.
In her appeal, Alqasem has argued that she never actively participated in boycott campaigns, and promised the court that she would not promote them in the future.
“We’re talking about someone who simply wants to study in Israel, who is not boycotting anything,” said her lawyer, Yotam Ben-Hillel. “She’s not even part of the student organization anymore.”
Alqasem is registered to study human rights at Israel’s Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The university has thrown its support behind her, announcing Monday that it would join her appeal.
She also received a boost from her former Hebrew professor at the University of Florida, who described her as an exceptional and curious student. In a letter to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Dror Abend-David said Alqasem had an “open and positive attitude toward Judaism, Jews, and the state of Israel.”