Arrested US student fights entry ban at Israeli court

Bari Weiss at her desk in The New York Times office in Midtown Manhattan

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 global airport for the past week over allegations that she promotes a boycott against the Jewish state. 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, 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.

But when Alqasem arrived at Tel Aviv's worldwide airport last week, she was blocked from entering the country. Israel insists she can leave at any time but must renounce the BDS boycott movement if she wishes to be reconsidered for admission. It's come under heavy criticism for its handling of Alqasem's case.

He argued that her treatment was actually strengthening the BDS campaign to boycott goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

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.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an opinion piece by columnist Bret Stephens and editor Bari Weiss critical of Israel's handling of Alqasem's case.

"We're talking about someone who simply wants to study in Israel, who is not boycotting anything", said her lawyer, Yotam Ben-Hillel.

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".

"Lara served as president of a chapter of one of the most extreme and hate-filled anti-Israel BDS groups in the USA", said Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who is charge of the Israeli government's efforts against the boycott group.

The group has supported boycott campaigns against Israel.

While waiting for her appeal to be heard, Alqasem has been spending her days in a closed area with little access to a telephone, no internet and a bed that was infested with bedbugs, according to people who have spoken to her.

The university's lawyer also said that the ban on Alqasem would have a negative effect on other students planning on coming to study in Israel in the future; they would be reluctant to come knowing that even if they had a student visa they could be denied entry on arrival.

Israel enacted a law previous year banning any foreigner who "knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel" from entering the country.

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. Jewish groups in the United States as well as the Hebrew University, where she is registered to pursue a master's degree in human rights, have also flocked to her defense.

"In my job, I really don't have to deal with BDS really at all", he said. "They really haven't been that active".

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