Nation & World

Florida student detained and ordered to leave Israel over pro-Palestinian activities

Lara Alqasem, 22, a University of Florida grad, was detained at Ben Gurion Airport on Oct. 2, 2018, and ordered deported for “pro boycott” activities against Israel when she was a UF student. She wants to study for her master’s at Hebrew University, according to Holy Land Trust.
Lara Alqasem, 22, a University of Florida grad, was detained at Ben Gurion Airport on Oct. 2, 2018, and ordered deported for “pro boycott” activities against Israel when she was a UF student. She wants to study for her master’s at Hebrew University, according to Holy Land Trust. Holy Land Trust

Israel has denied entry to a University of Florida graduate, citing the student’s involvement with a group that urged a boycott against the country for its policies toward Palestinians, according to reports.

Haretz and The Times of Israel said that, 22-year-old Lara Alqasem, a U.S. citizen with Palestinian grandparents, was prevented from entering Israel after she arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday.

Alqasem had been granted a student visa from the Consulate General of Israel in Miami to study in a master’s program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Haaretz reported. The visa was valid for a year.

The Consulate General confirmed on Thursday that the visa was issued in Miami.

Lior Haiat, the consul general of Israel in Miami, told the Miami Herald in a statement: “Every country has the sovereign right to decide who is admitted to enter its borders. Once we realized that Ms. Alqasem is involved in anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) activities through the BDS movement, she was denied entry. She appealed to the Israeli courts and the case is still being reviewed. We find it ironic that someone who calls on the indiscriminate boycott of Israel, as a tool to harm and destroy the State of Israel, wishes to study in the very country which they call to boycott.”

Reports from Israel say Alqasem was detained, and held, at the airport by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority, which manages security at Israel’s borders, because she had served as president of Students for Justice in Palestine when she was a student at the University of Florida in 2016-17.

She was ordered deported to London because while at UF she “promoted a boycott of Israeli companies and worked to harm Israel through a cultural boycott,” according to the Strategic Affairs Ministry, Haaretz reported. The authority said the student group was a branch of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a pro-Palestine group.

According to records, Alqasem lives in Southwest Ranches in Broward, and previously lived in Gainesville while studying at UF.

In an interview with WMNF 88.5 Thursday morning, the student’s mother, Karen Alqasem, said her daughter’s lawyer was told Thursday morning that the Israeli ministry had “recommended that she should not be allowed to stay.” Alqasem’s lawyer is pleading her case in an attempt to convince Israel to let her stay, Karen Alqasem, who is of Welsh descent, told the station.

“I’m hoping because that’s what she wants,” her mother told WMNF. “She’s interested in languages and her undergrad was in international studies and Arabic. So she wants to stay in the country. She’s very interested in the culture and the languages. Not just Arabic but Hebrew also. She also studies Hebrew. That’s what she wants to do.”

Alqasem graduated cum laude in May with a B.A. in major foreign languages and Arabic literature, as well as international studies with an emphasis on the Middle East, according to a UF spokeswoman. The university declined further comment.

In an email sent to the Herald Thursday, Alqasem’s former teacher at UF in an Israelis and Palestinians course, Tamir Sorek, said Alqasem had consulted with him on whether she should pursue her master’s at Hebrew University. As an alumnus of Hebrew University, Sorek thought it would be an “excellent opportunity” for Alqasem to study with top scholars and “be exposed to the complexity of Israeli society.” He said Alqasem had also contacted him in the early hours of her detention.

“In addition to her academic excellence, Lara was an extraordinarily open-minded, curious, and empathetic student,” Sorek said in his email.

Sorek disputed the characterization of Alqasem by the Israel consul general in Miami. “It is ironic that by preventing Lara from studying at Hebrew University, itself an act of resistance to the totalizing narrative of the BDS movement, the state of Israel is imposing on her a political position she herself never held. In our discussions, Lara was always clear in her desire to learn about both sides of the conflict first-hand.”

On Wednesday, the Entry to Israel Law Review Tribunal, an Israeli appeals court, froze Alqasem’s deportation order by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority and gave the state a Thursday deadline to determine whether it would allow Alqasem to enter.

In the meantime, Alqasem’s friends, former UF classmates, and a representative from the Holy Land Trust, a nonprofit organization in Bethlehem in the West Bank, decried Alqasem’s treatment while she was detained at the airport.

“Despite acquiring an Israeli lawyer to advocate on her behalf and filing a petition, the Israeli airport security continued to try to get Alqasem on a flight to London rather than afford her due process,” Cody O’ Rourke, a communications director with Holy Land Trust, said in a document he forwarded to the Miami Herald.

“During her detention, Alqasem has been denied food, water, and access to the bathroom,” O’ Rourke wrote.

Added Farah Khan, a Class of 2016 UF grad, “after she appeared in court to appeal her denial of entry and deportation, she was later denied access to her lawyers while in detention overnight.”

O’ Rourke also complained that Florida’s representatives in the Senate and Congress have been “evasive at best and non-responsive at worst.”

On Thursday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told the Herald: “Israeli law prohibits entry of individuals involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. I support Israel’s right to do that, as a sovereign state. Ms. Alqasem is my constituent, and her family has reached out to my office seeking assistance. We have opened a constituent case, and are gathering information regarding this situation.”

In a post on Facebook, Dalia Figuerado reiterated that her friend, Alqasem, had been detained, “threatened with deportation” without due process, and directed her post at Sen. Bill Nelson, who is running for reelection against Gov. Rick Scott.

Figuerado said Alqasem was there to obtain her master’s in Human Rights & Transitional Justice at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Hebrew University sent a letter of support to Alqasem’s Israeli lawyer, Haaretz reported, warning that “preventing a foreign student such as her from studying in the country would harm its ties with other universities around the world.”

According to an Israeli law passed in 2017, the Interior Ministry can bar entry for supporters of the BDS movement if they are non-citizens of Israel, The Times of Israel reported.

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