Israeli Arab Wins Political Asylum in U.S.

By Josh Richman

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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OAKLAND, Calif. — A federal appeals court in San Francisco has granted political asylum to an Israeli Arab who claims that he suffered from persecution at the hands of the Israeli government and military.

As a result of last week’s ruling, Ibrahim Baballah; his wife, Ula, and their teenage son, Ahmad, can’t be deported from their San Jose home while their case is remanded to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Attorney General John Ashcroft still has discretion to deny asylum if the family has a criminal background or poses any danger to the United States, but Baballah’s attorney said their records are clean and described the step as a technicality.

In an opinion joined by fellow judges A. Wallace Tashima and Sidney Thomas, Judge Richard Paez ruled that Baballah “has established that he suffered past persecution such that his life and livelihood were threatened on account of his ethnicity and religion” and “has shown a genuine and well-founded fear of future persecution should he return to Israel.”

Baballah testified that, as the child of the only mixed Muslim-Jewish marriage in his coastal hometown of Akko, he has faced discrimination all of his life. According to his testimony, Baballah ended up a fisherman because, despite his training as an accountant, bank officials refused to hire him on account of his family background.

Hussein Ibish, communications director of the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he is unaware of any other case in which an Israeli Arab has been granted asylum. “It’s important that a court has recognized that the Israeli state can be very abusive to non-Jewish citizens, especially Palestinian citizens of Israel,” he said.

“There is sometimes a political mood in the U.S. that Israel can do no wrong, that Israel is a faultless society,” at least within its own borders if not the territories, Ibish said. “It’s good that a court was willing to see past the popular assumption — at least popular in the press and Congress — that people who live inside the borders of Israel, whatever their ethnicity, never have cause for complaint.”

The case also marks a significant turn “in the ongoing argument about whether U.S. political asylum provisions should be applied with a broad or narrow standard,” Ibish said. “This is an important ruling for a broad standard.” The court, he argued, has essentially ruled that persecution that “is not necessarily life-threatening, but serious nonetheless” can be grounds for an asylum request.

Omer Caspi, Israel’s deputy consul general in San Francisco, said he first learned of the case over the weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle. “We didn’t know about this case before, so it’s hard for me to give you useful information,” Caspi said Monday. “We sent the information back to Israel and asked for some details, but we haven’t received it yet.”

A receptionist in the press office of the Israeli embassy in Washington said the embassy knew of the ruling, but was referring all questions back to Caspi.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the American government is reviewing the ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and has not yet decided whether to leave it unchallenged. In theory, the Justice Department could petition either for an “en banc” review by an 11-judge panel of the circuit court or a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“During the ten years that [Baballah] worked as a fisherman, he was the victim of incessant threats and acts of violence by the Israeli Marines, who relentlessly harassed him,” the ruling stated, in an apparent reference to Israel naval sailors. “Although the Israeli Marines did not confront other fishermen, when they saw Baballah, they sped up to his fishing boat in their larger vessel and circled near him, causing his boat to rock precipitously and fill with water. At times, the Marines shot bullets in the air over Baballah’s boat and threw eggs at Baballah and his crew.”

Baballah’s testimony reportedly went unchallenged.

The Israeli sailors allegedly turned high-pressure water hoses on Baballah’s boat; once they even boarded the boat, tied his brother to a pole and sprayed him with the hoses before accusing him of assault and arresting him, leading to a year’s imprisonment. “As a result of the imprisonment,” the ruling stated, “Baballah’s brother suffered a mental impairment and is now dependent upon the family for support.”

The court found that these incidents prevented Baballah from earning a living and supporting his family. At times, the sailors allegedly drove their boats over Baballah’s nets to shred them. The sailors allegedly destroyed the boat and laughed about it afterwards. And, Baballah has claimed, Israeli authorities also harassed other members of his family, confiscating his father’s land and livestock, and denying one of his brothers the chance to compete in the Olympics because he refused to convert to Judaism.

Baballah brought his wife and son to the United States in July 1992. He requested asylum, and an immigration judge found his testimony to be credible but found that the events he described didn’t rise to the level of asylum-worthy persecution. The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, but was overruled last week by the 9th Circuit appeals court.

The three judges, all Clinton appointees, ruled that the lower court’s judges erred in finding that Baballah’s claims were diminished by the context of tension between Jews and Arabs that gripped Israel; instead, the three appeals court judges argued, such tension should bolster his claims.

“Baballah did not rely on the general threat of danger to individuals with a mixed ethnic background; his testimony was replete with specific instances in which he was individually singled out for abuse by Israeli Marines,” Paez wrote. “The [immigration judge’s] suggestion that the threats and attacks experienced by Baballah and his family cannot be considered persecution because of generally dangerous conditions is at odds with our case law.

“Because any reasonable fact finder would be compelled to find that the destruction of Baballah’s business and threats to his well-being constituted persecution, we hold that the [immigration judge’s] decision was not supported by substantial evidence.”

The Baballah family’s attorney, Haitham Ballout of Burlingame, Calif., said his clients — who now own and operate a restaurant in San Jose — aren’t granting interviews. Ballout said the family was “elated” over the ruling.

“Finally there is certainty in their lives, peace of mind,” Ballout said.

“The implication is that it doesn’t matter where people come from, that we as a nation are interested in applying our immigration law,” Ballout said. “Of course Israel is an ally, but if someone suffers persecution, we’re going to apply our laws regardless of where they’re coming from.”

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