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US backs 'freedom of expression' after Israel holds pro-Palestine student

Israel has detained an American student at its international airport for the past week [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 October, 2018

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The United States said it supports freedom of expression and was in touch with a Florida student refused entry into Israel over her alleged support for a pro-Palestinian boycott campaign.

The United States has expressed support for an American student who was refused entry into Israel over her alleged support for a pro-Palestinian boycott campaign.

The State Department said that the US embassy in Jerusalem was offering consular assistance to 22-year-old Lara Alqasem, who has chosen to challenge her ban into Israel and has been held for a week.

"As a general principle, we value freedom of expression even in cases where we don't agree with the political views expressed and this is such a case," State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters.

"Our strong opposition to the boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel is well-known," he said.

But he added: "Israel is a sovereign nation that can determine who enters."

Alqasem, whose father is of Palestinian descent, had planned to study human rights at Hebrew University and had an Israeli visa, her mother, Karen Alqasem, told Florida community radio station WMNF.

But Lara was stopped at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport and asked about the origin of her surname and her father's place of birth, her mother said.

She was denied entry over membership, which she denies, in a pro-Palestinian student group at the University of Florida, according to her mother.

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 final decision would be made.

She 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.

Alqasem, from the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Southwest Ranches, Florida, is a former president of the University of Florida chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a branch of the BDS movement.

BDS supporters say that in urging businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel, they are using nonviolent means to resist unjust policies toward Palestinians.

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

"Israel will not allow entry to those who work to harm the country, whatever their excuse.”

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

It also has identified 20 activist groups from around the world whose members can be denied entry upon arrival. It so far has blocked 15 people from entering, according to Erdan’s ministry.

The ministry uses a variety of sources to identify BDS activists, including tips from informants and social media posts. The ministry says its suspicions were deepened after learning that Alqasem recently deleted all of her social media accounts.

Israel's internal security minister, Gilad Erdan, said that Alqasem would be allowed to stay and take her place in university if she publicly denounces the BDS movement.

In addition to the anti-BDS campaign, Israel has detained or interrogated a number of vocal Jewish critics, both Israeli and foreign, about their political views while entering the country in recent months. 

These tactics, along with legislation curbing the influence of anti-occupation advocacy groups, have raised concerns that the nationalist government is trying to stifle dissent.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry says it deals only with BDS cases. The Shin Bet, which oversees security procedures at border crossings, says it stops people only over security matters, not their political views.

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