22-year-old University of Florida student Lara Alqasem was detained upon her arrival to the Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel last week.
Alqasem was preparing to begin her studies in the human rights field at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem but was instead prevented from entering the country. Although the student visa she provided officials with was valid, Alqasem faced accusations of involvement in a worldwide anti-Israeli political campaign orchestrated by Palestinian officials.
The campaign, which is called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, calls upon followers to boycott Israel and its establishments. Alqasem’s father is a Palestine native, and is currently banned from entering Israel himself due to his own alleged involvement in the political workings of BDS. After the BDS movement began to gain popularity, Israel passed a law in 2017 that allows the government to detain people accused of supporting boycotts of the country or its arrangements in the West Bank.
In his defense of Israel’s right to prevent potentially harmful foreigners from entering the country, Gilad Erdan, the Israeli Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs, called BDS “anti-Semitic” and said that the movement “calls for Israel’s destruction.”
Officials called for Lara Alqasem’s return to the United States, questioning why she “changed her story several times” during interrogations, and why she “deleted her social media content” prior to leaving for her trip. Gilad Erdan accused Alqasem of leading a chapter of an “extreme and hate-filled BDS group,” citing her presidency of the Students for Justice in Palestine organization at the University of Florida, as well as her profile on a website claiming to document people and organizations supporting a “hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.”
Alqasem reportedly appealed the court order to send her back to the United States after telling Tel Aviv officials that she was no longer a part of the political movement, but she will remain in confinement until the court is able to settle the case. Although Erdan said that Israel would consider permitting Alqasem to study in Jerusalem if she condemned the boycott campaign, officials allegedly prevented representatives from the Hebrew University from visiting the student at the detention center. Hebrew University of Jerusalem officials have come to the student’s defense, speaking to members of the press about their intent to join Alqasem’s appeal of the court order to deport her.
In the last year, several critics of the Israeli government, including U.S. reporters, have been interrogated upon entrance to the country regarding their political beliefs, rekindling the question of whether or not Israel is repressing freedom of speech.
Rector Barak Medina of Hebrew University spoke to the press, saying that the case with Lara Alqasem may increase the propensity towards boycotting Israeli legislation rather than preventing it, and adding that the recent events have shown the public “the extent to which Israel is not acting like a liberal democracy should.”