More than a week after she was put in a detention center at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, Palestinian-American student Lara Alqasem sat before the Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday morning as her lawyer plead her case as to why she should be allowed entry into Israel to participate in a Master’s program that she was accepted to at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Alqasem, a Florida resident of Palestinian descent, was detained on October 2 by Israeli authorities for her alleged connections to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Her detention is the latest high-profile case in the government’s growing crackdown on the movement.
The government is claiming that it has reasons to deny the 22-year-old student entry due to the fact that she marked herself as “attending” on a Facebook event allegedly supporting the BDS movement, and her listing on the right-wing website Canary Mission that targets and “exposes” pro-Palestinian activists.
The legal basis for barring Alqasem from Israel, is the government’s 2017 anti-BDS law which gives authorities the right to prohibit entry to foreigners who publicly act to boycott Israel or its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Alqasem’s lawyer, Yotam Ben-Hillel, argued on Thursday that Alqasem is not an active participant in the BDS movement, and that the anti-BDS law should not apply in her case.
“According to their law, which itself is extremely problematic, they should be targeting significant BDS activists, not someone like Lara,” Ben-Hillel told Mondoweiss.
“She was in a very small organization at the University of Florida and hardly did anything there, nor did she call for a boycott of Israel,” he said.
“We also claim that during the past year-and-a-half, she hasn’t been working for this organization, and the fact that she applied to become a Hebrew University student says it all — that she doesn’t promote BDS, and she said she is not intending to do so while in Israel.”
Ben-Hillel is arguing that, for this reason, and along with the fact that she got accepted to the university and obtained an Israeli visa from the Israeli consulate in Miami prior to traveling, she should be let into the country.
While the judge did not give a deadline for his decision, Ben-Hillel told Mondoweiss that he expects a decision to be made in the coming days, noting that Alqasem is voluntarily staying in detention at Ben Gurion to avoid deportation until the decision.
On her first day of detention, Alqasem reported having to move cells due to bed bugs in the women’s detention area.
Sources, who have requested anonymity, have described the conditions in Ben Gurion’s detention center as dreadful and “absolutely filthy.”
One woman of Palestinian descent, who was denied entry and detained for 36 hours, told Mondoweiss that she was verbally harassed by the soldiers guarding her cell, who hurled racist insults at her, saying they wanted to “get rid of all the Arabs” in the country, and that the guards repeatedly told her she “wasn’t Palestinian since there was no such thing as Palestine.”
She said she was not allowed to take any of her personal belongings in the cell with her, and was not allowed to leave the cell except to smoke — guarded by an officer at all times.
“There was no clock to tell time and I wasn’t allowed my phone, even though before I was transferred to the detention facility they lied and told me I would keep my phone and have access to wifi,” she told Mondoweiss.
“Detention there is literally staring at the filthy walls waiting for time to pass,” she said.
Ben-Hillel criticized Israel’s crackdown over recent months on activists, journalists, and foreigners with Palestinian heritage attempting to enter the country.
“It really looks like they [Israel] are putting a lot of effort and money and resources in order to prevent entry,” he said, “and it’s not just entry into Israel. It’s in the West Bank — for people working in the West Bank, even people whose spouses live in the West Bank.”
“This is all motivated by Jewish supremacy and wanting to keep the land — even if it’s the occupied territory — with as little amount of Palestinians as possible and to completely control who is entering, and the number of every Arab between the Jordan river and the sea,” Ben-Hillel told Mondoweiss.
“All of these things are part of one picture, and this is very worrying. Unfortunately this is the direction that we are headed in.”