By Ori Lewis
Tel AVIV (Reuters) - An Israeli court on Thursday heard the appeal of an American student against a decision to bar her entry to Israel, even though she had a study visa, over alleged activities supporting an international boycott campaign by pro-Palestinian groups.
The case has touched off a debate in Israel over whether democratic values have been compromised by a 2017 law that bars the entry of foreigners who publicly support anti-Israel boycotts, and if a hard line against the student would ultimately harm the country's image.
Lara Alqasem, 22, was accepted into a graduate programme at Jerusalem's Hebrew University - which has called for her to be let in - and was issued a student's visa by the Israeli consulate in Miami.
But on arrival at Tel Aviv's international airport last week, she was refused entry by officials who cited her role as president of a small local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida.
Its activities, the government said, included a campaign to boycott Sabra hummus, made and sold in the United States by a company partially owned by a firm in Israel.
Alqasem, who is of Palestinian descent, has been held in a detention facility at the airport since and appealed to the Tel Aviv District Court against plans to deport her. She did not speak to reporters during the session.
The government argues that groups such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that want to isolate Israel over its occupation of territory which Palestinians seek for a state are anti-Semitic and aimed at its destruction.
"The time has come for some national pride here," Interior Minister Arye Deri said on Army Radio just before the hearing, calling the entry ban justified.
In court, a lawyer for Alqasem said she stopped her activities in the Students for Justice group months before the anti-boycott law came into effect, effectively voiding the decision to ban her.
"Visa cancellation should be done only in exceptional circumstances and this is not such a case," said the attorney, Yotam Ben-Hillel.
At an earlier hearing, Alqasem pledged not to take part in boycott activities while in Israel and said she did not intend to visit the West Bank, her attorneys said.
But Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said on Twitter on Wednesday that Israel would reconsider the ban only if she declares she made a mistake in the past and believes support for a boycott is "illegitimate".
The judge said he would issue his decision soon, without specifying a date, and ordered Alqasem returned to the airport holding facility.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Richard Balmforth)