High Court rules State must release Lara Alqasem from airport for studies

Alqasem has been detained at the airport for around two weeks after the state alleged she was a BDS supporter who fit the criteria for being blocked from entering the country.

US student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv, 2018 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
US student Lara Alqasem appears at the district court in Tel Aviv, 2018
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The High Court of Justice on Thursday ordered the state to release Lara Alqasem from Ben-Gurion Airport so she can attend Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Alqasem, a 22-year-old American, was detained at the airport when she landed on Oct. 2 after the state alleged she was a BDS supporter who fit the criteria for being blocked from entering the country.
In a statement released to the press after the High Courts verdict,  Alqasem wrote that she is "relieved at the court’s decision and incredibly grateful for the work of my amazing and tireless lawyers Yotam Ben Hillel and Leora Bechor as well as the support of my family and friends."
"I will be happy to say more when I've had a chance to rest and process."
The state’s position was supported by both a special issues court and the Tel Aviv District Court, before the High Court, in a 3-0 vote, overturned the apple cart with a ruling that could shake the foundations of the state’s anti-entry police for BDS activists.
Though unexpected late Thursday night after all prior levels had ruled against Alqasem, the result seemed possible after the High Court pummeled the state with questions on Wednesday appearing to lean toward her entering the country.
Alqasem has admitted that she supported BDS until April 2017, but has said that she then left the movement and that her desire to spend a year in a master’s program at Hebrew University after having graduated from Florida University shows a clear break with her past.
Justice Neal Hendel, on many issues viewed as part of the court’s conservative wing, wrote that the fact that Alqasem was ready to attend Hebrew University, de facto recognizing the state, did not jive with the concept that she is currently a BDS activist.
Hendel also seemed to take Alqasem’s side that her prior BDS activities had related to a small group will little real impact, though at the same time he defended the state’s right to bar entry to top current BDS activists.
He wrote that with a top BDS activist, a democracy has a right to defend itself just as much as an individual has a right of self-defense.
Justice Anat Baron added that the evidence of Alqasem’s current BDS activity, as opposed to her past, was so flimsy, that it seemed that the state had blocked her due to her political views.
If so, she said the court needed to step in to prevent this slippery slope from continuing.
The court also stated that there should be a higher standard of evidence for revoking a visa that has already been granted, as occurred in Alqasem’s case, than for denying a student visa to begin with.
Alqasem’s lawyer Yotam Ben Hillel and Leora Bechor praised the ruling as, “a victory for free speech, academic freedom and the rule of law…Lara has ensured that no one else should be denied the right to enter Israel based on sloppy Google searches.”
Hebrew University, which defended Alqasem’s right to enter the country, also praised the decision. “The Hebrew University of Jerusalem looks forward to welcoming our newest student, Lara Alqasem, as she begins her M.A. in Human Rights and Transitional Justice at our law school next week,” the school said in a statement.
The High Court appeared to agree with Ben Hillel that the district and lower courts both adopted overly wide interpretations of the law with respect to the justification for denying entry to Israel.
Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan responded that “the court unfortunately granted a big victory to BDS,” which he said would make it harder for Israel to fight activists who harm the country. He said the decision proved the justices failed to understand the way the BDS Movement works and that now BDS activists could come from around the world and say they do not currently support boycotting Israel.
Erdan vowed to pass legislation to close the loophole created by the court. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation is expected to advance a bill sponsored by Likud MK Anat Berko on Sunday that would allow courts to give seven-year jail sentences to activists who take an active role in boycotting Israel or its products.
Meretz MK Essawi Frej said “a country that passes such a bill is worthy of being boycotted” and if it passes, he will “call on everyone in the world who backs freedom of expression to boycott a country that pursues non-violent protesters with a Fascist thought police.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.