Israeli supreme court overturns entry ban on US student

US student Lara Alqasem attends a hearing at Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem on October 17, 2018 (AFP Photo/Menahem KAHANA) (AFP)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel's supreme court on Thursday overturned an entry ban imposed on a US student over past support for a pro-Palestinian boycott campaign, leading to her release after more than two weeks of detention.

The three-judge panel upheld Lara Alqasem's appeal against the ban, allowing the 22-year-old to take her place on a master's degree programme at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, which had awarded her a scholarship.

The interior ministry's decision to bar her from entry, the court ruled, "was not within the bounds of reason and is revoked".

"The Hebrew University of Jerusalem looks forward to welcoming our newest student, Lara Alqasem, as she begins her MA in human rights and transitional justice at our law school next week," the university said in a brief statement after the court decision.

Alqasem landed at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 2, but despite having a visa she was not allowed to clear immigration due to a 2017 law barring supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Ordered to return to the United States, she decided instead to stay in Israel and challenge the ban.

She has since been in detention at the airport, while lower courts rejected two appeals.

A spokeswoman for the immigration authority said she was released from the holding facility on Thursday evening.

Alqasem, whose father is of Palestinian descent, had been president of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) during her undergraduate studies at the University of Florida.

The group has supported boycott campaigns against Israel.

In March 2017, Israel's parliament passed the law banning the entry of supporters of BDS, a movement inspired by an international campaign against South Africa before the fall of apartheid.

Alqasem says she left SJP in 2017 and is no longer part of the BDS movement.

Alqasem's lawyer argued before the supreme court that the state should apply common sense when applying the law against BDS supporters.

"Why would she want to enter Israel to call for a boycott?" Yotam Ben Hillel asked.

Thursday's 28-page ruling agreed.

"In this case, denying the applicant's entry does not advance the purpose of the law, and it is argued, for example, by the Hebrew University that it harms Israeli academia," it said, going on to criticise the immigration authorities.

"Since the actions of the applicant do not establish sufficient grounds to prohibit her entry into Israel, the inevitable impression is that the denial of the visa granted to her is due to the political opinions she holds," it wrote, in a slap for immigration authorities.

- "Extreme and dangerous step" -

"If this is indeed the case, then this is an extreme and dangerous step that could lead to the disintegration of the pillars on which democracy is built in Israel," it added.

Interior Minister Arie Deri, under whose ministry the immigration authority falls, lashed out at the court in response.

"The decision to allow the student who openly acts against the state of Israel to remain in the country is a disgrace," he tweeted.

"I shall look into how to prevent such a thing happening again."

Attorney Ben Hillel said he hoped that Deri would reconsider his policy.

"Israel has the right to control its borders, but that right does not give the ministry of the interior unchecked power to turn away anyone it deems unwanted," he wrote in a statement.

"Lara’s case proves that thought-policing has no place in a democracy."