Lara Alqasem appeared for her first hearing before the Israeli High Court on Wednesday morning to appeal her deportation from the country.
The 22-year-old Palestinian-American graduate student, who was accepted to a Master’s program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been stuck in a holding cell at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport since she arrived in the country on October 2.
She was denied entry by the Israeli government for her alleged previous involvement in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, despite having obtained a valid visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami prior to traveling.
Alqasem’s attorneys, Leora Bechor and Yotam Ben-Hillel, have filed two appeals over the past two weeks in Israeli district courts, both of which were rejected.
The nature of Wednesday’s hearing, according to Bechor, was not an appeal, but motion to get permission to appeal Alqasem’s case before the High Court, because they are legally not granted another appeal unless the High Court permits them to do so.
No deadline has been set for the court to announce its decision, but Bechor said she expects the decision to happen soon, given the fact that Alqasem is still sitting in a detention facility.
Alqasem’s attorneys asked the three high court justices on Wednesday to take into consideration the weight of the fact that she was issued a valid Israeli visa ahead of traveling.
They also argued that the current anti-BDS law in place gives the government the permission to deny entry to “leading activists” working in a “consistent and continuous” manner — a criterion that does not apply to Alqasem, who has been accused by the state of previously participating in student organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which support BDS.
When asked by the justices if Alqasem currently supports a boycott of Israel, Ben-Hillel responded by saying that his client has publicly stated during previous court proceedings that she is not a BDS activist, nor would she call for a boycott of Israel while studying in the country.
Bechor has stated that Alqasem “does not meet the evidentiary test of what it means to be an activist,” adding that there is “no paper or digital trail” that she is a BDS activist, and that she has made no public statements in support of the movement.
“One of the arguments that was raised by the state today, was that they were unable to prove she engaged in activities in 2018 because she erased her Facebook page, and the erasing of the page shows she’s a BDS activist because that’s what BDS activists do,” Bechor told journalists in a press briefing on Wednesday.
“But the court said Facebook is not the only source of evidence, you [the state] have no positive evidence to prove she’s an activist,” she said.
Government prosecutors argued on Wednesday that the state has the authority to deny entry to a person. In response, Justice Anat Baron acknowledge said “the law is the law, and the [interior] minister [can exercise] judgment, but is there a sufficient basis for revoking her entry at this stage?”
Bechor told journalists that she was optimistic “because the court really pressed the state and gave them a hard time regarding their lack of evidence.”
Despite speculations that Alqasem might challenge Israel’s BDS law altogether, Bechor told journalists that they would not be going there.
“The court made abundantly clear they are going to give a reserved decision that doesn’t jump to the question of constitutional issues and this boycott law,” she said, adding that in March 2019 the High Court is expected to hear a case that is challenging the boycott law on constitutional grounds.
“In Lara’s case, what the court was pressing was the issue of discretion: how wide and broad the ministry of interior’s discretion is. The court says ministry has discretion but only up to a certain point. How does this woman meet that test? The court did not seem to be convinced in any way,” she said.
“There’s very much a sense that we’re going to get a different ruling this time,” Bechor said. “We have judges not willing to accept the state’s argument and were unimpressed by their lack of evidence.”
In the meantime, Bechor said Alqasem, who didn’t anticipate getting this far in the courts, is cautiously optimistic.