US student who engaged in pro-Palestinian activism appeals ban on entering Israel

An American graduate student -- who admits her previous support for a pro-Palestinian boycott campaign targeting Israel -- appealed on Thursday the Jewish state's decision to bar her from the country due to her anti-Israel activism.

Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old of Palestinian descent who has a valid student visa to enter Israel, is expected to remain in detention while the appeal is considered. No date is set for a ruling to be issued.

Alqasem reportedly appeared calm during her appearance in Tel Aviv District Court to fight her deportation back to the U.S. Alqasem didn't speak during the session – but she smiled when photographers and journalists surrounded her.

The Florida native had been accepted into a graduate program at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and was issued a student’s visa by the Israeli consulate in Miami. She was set to begin classes next week. But when Alqasem arrived at Tel Aviv’s international airport last week, she was blocked from entering the country.

Officials said they barred Alqasem because she had served as president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which the Israeli government says is a branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

A senior Israeli cabinet minister on Wednesday defended the government's handling of the case of an American graduate student held in detention at the country's international airport for the past week over allegations that she promotes a boycott against the Jewish state. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

A senior Israeli cabinet minister on Wednesday defended the government's handling of the case of an American graduate student held in detention at the country's international airport for the past week over allegations that she promotes a boycott against the Jewish state. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

BDS advocates for boycotts against the Jewish nation's businesses and products with the goal of isolating Israel and advancing Palestinian efforts to secure their own state.

Israel passed a law in 2017 preventing foreign nationals who knowingly issue a public call advocating a boycott – be it economic, cultural or academic – from entering the country.

“The time has come for some national pride here,” Interior Minister Arye Deri said on Army Radio just before Thursday's hearing, calling the entry ban justified.

US GRADUATE STUDENT DETAINED IN ISRAEL FOR ALLEGED PRO-PALESTINIAN BOYCOTT SUPPORT

The government said Alqasem's student group’s activities included a campaign to boycott Sabra hummus, which is made and sold in the United States by a company partially owned by a firm in Israel. Sabra takes in about $1 billion annually.

But Alqasem's attorney argued Thursday that the student stopped her activities with the pro-Palestinian group months before Israel’s anti-boycott law came into effect, effectively voiding the decision to ban her.

“Visa cancellation should be done only in exceptional circumstances and this is not such a case,” attorney Yotam Ben-Hillel said, according to Reuters.

Jerusalem's Hebrew University has thrown its support behind Alqasem, announcing Monday it would join her appeal.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted Wednesday that Israel would reconsider the ban only if Alqasem declares she made a mistake in the past and believes support for a boycott is “illegitimate”.

"We don't want to see [SJP] activists coming to Israel and trying to use our infrastructure to harm us and destroy us," Erdan said.

A representative from the U.S. Embassy in Israel said it visited Alqasem in detention to ensure she had food and water.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the government is aware of the case, but "ultimately, it is up to the government of Israel to decide who it wants to let into the country."