JERUSALEM — A senior Israeli Cabinet minister on Wednesday defended the government's handling of the case of an American graduate student held in detention at the country's international airport for the past week over allegations that she promotes a boycott against the Jewish state.
In an interview, Gilad Erdan, who oversees the government's efforts to counter the Palestinian-led boycott movement, said that Israel has the right to protect itself and decide who enters its borders. He also rejected international criticism of Israel's handling of the case and said he would not be swayed by criticism in the media.
"World media many times are against the state of Israel, and that is not something that has to tell us to change our ideology or to change our mind," Erdan said.
Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American citizen with Palestinian grandparents, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport last week with a valid student visa and was registered to study human rights at Israel's Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But she was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on suspicions that she is an activist in the boycott movement.
She has remained in detention while appealing, although Erdan said she is not being held against her will and can leave the country at any time. The more than weeklong detention is the longest anyone has been held in a boycott-related case. Her case is set to be heard at a Tel Aviv court Thursday.
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. The group is a branch of the BDS movement, whose name comes from its calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
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. Israel says the movement masks its motives to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state.
Erdan, Israel's minister for strategic affairs, described Students for Justice in Palestine as an extremist organization. "We don't want to see their activists coming to Israel and trying to use our infrastructure to harm us and destroy us," he said.
Israel, and Erdan in particular, have come under widespread criticism for their handling of Alqasem's case. Her lawyers say she is no longer involved in BDS activity, and former professors have described her as a curious and open-minded student.
On Wednesday, the New York Times published an opinion piece by columnist Bret Stephens and editor Bari Weiss critical of Israel's handling of Alqasem's case. Both journalists are normally strong supporters of Israel. More than 300 academics penned a letter in the British Guardian Wednesday calling the case "an attack on academic freedom."
Erdan rejected the criticism. "We are doing whatever we believe that is right for the security of the state of Israel and that is more important than whatever the New York Times or other newspapers around the world will say about our policy," Erdan said.
While waiting for her appeal to be heard, Alqasem 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.
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.
Erdan repeated his offer to reconsider the decision against Alqasem if she apologizes and pledges not to engage in BDS activity. "So far I didn't get this kind of commitment," he said.
Jared Glosser, the Israeli engagement coordinator at the University of Florida Hillel, a campus Jewish group, said he had never come into contact with Alqasem. But he described the university community as being very supportive of Israel and said BDS activity on campus is "rather small."
"In my job, I really don't have to deal with BDS really at all," he said. "They really haven't been that active."