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Israel defends actions against detained U.S. student as international criticism mounts

This undated photo provided by Alqasem family shows Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old American graduate student with Palestinian grandparents.

Alqasem family via AP

JERUSALEM -- Israel is defending its handling of the case of an American graduate student who has been detained at the country's international airport for the past week over allegations she supports a boycott against the Jewish state. 

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said Wednesday that Israel had the right to protect itself and decide who enters its borders despite growing international 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. 

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. She was barred from entering the country and ordered deported, based on suspicions that she supports a Palestinian-led boycott movement.

An Israeli court has ordered that she remain in custody while she appeals, although Israel says she can leave the country. 

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. 

The 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.

On Wednesday, The New York Times Times published an opinion piece by columnist Bret Stephens and editor Bari Weiss critical of Israel's handling of Alqasem's case. 

More than 300 academics also penned a letter in Britain's Guardian newspaper Wednesday calling the case "an attack on academic freedom." 

"As professors who are committed to academic freedom, and as humans who reject all forms of racial profiling, we are calling on the Israeli authorities to permit Lara Alqasem to enter Israel and pursue her studies," the letter says. 

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. 

On Tuesday, Erdan floated a possible compromise, saying in a radio interview that he would rethink his decision to expel her if she apologizes and renounces her support for BDS.

In her appeal, Alqasem has argued that she never actively participated in boycott campaigns, and promised the court that she would not promote them in the future.

"We're talking about someone who simply wants to study in Israel, who is not boycotting anything," said her lawyer, Yotam Ben-Hillel. "She's not even part of the student organization anymore."