July 24, 2003
First Israeli Arab Wins Asylum in U.S.
An Israeli Arab is eligible for asylum in the United States based on a long history of persecution in Israel, a U.S. appeals court in San Francisco ruled on July 11.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel spells apparent success for an 11-year legal fight by Abrahim Baballah, a native and citizen of Israel, and his claim that he would face physical and economic persecution if returned to Israel.
A fisherman from Akko (Acre), Baballah alleged that much of the persecution stemmed from being the son of a Jewish mother, who married a Muslim Arab and converted to Islam.
In the court's ruling, Judge Richard Paez of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that "Baballah was the victim of terrifying attacks on a frequent basis over a 10-year period" by Israeli marines in Akko "and risked his life in frustrated attempts to earn a livelihood."
Omer Caspi, Israeli deputy consul general in San Francisco, said the consulate had only learned of the case in recent days through a newspaper article and had forwarded the information to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, termed the court decision "outrageous ... as if they were dealing with a refugee from a dictatorship." He noted that "there are Iranian Jews and non-Jews who clearly face persecution and are being denied asylum."
Hoenlein said that he was consulting with attorneys on the implications of the decision and possible future action.
In testimony that the court accepted as credible, Baballah, who now owns a restaurant in San Jose, said that he sought work as an accountant but was turned down when employers learned his background.
His real troubles began, he said, when he became a fisherman and the persistent target of Israeli naval crews, functioning similarly to the U.S. Coast Guard. During almost daily harassment, Baballah said, Israeli navy crews circled his fishing boat, sprayed it with water hoses, fired bullets, threw eggs and tore his fishing nets with their propellers.
In one dramatic incident, Baballah claimed, a naval crew boarded his boat, tied his brother to a pole, sprayed him with pressurized hoses in freezing weather, then arrested the brother and jailed him for more than a year.
Another time, when his boat ran aground, Baballah said, an Israeli naval boat offered help but towed it in such a way that the boat split apart, to the amusement of the marines.
In Akko, according to Baballah, Israeli sailors followed him, taunting him as a "goy," which to Arab ears means "dirty" and "bastard."
Paez wrote that the constant taunts of "goy" indicated hostile ethnic and religious motivations.
Baballah has refused all press interviews and photos, according to his attorney, Haitham Ballout, who said Baballah, his wife, Ula, and now teenage son, Ahmed, had arrived in the United States in 1992 and asked for asylum.
The request was denied by an immigration hearing officer and subsequently by the Board of Immigration Appeals. In both instances, Baballah's story was accepted as credible but deemed insufficient to constitute persecution, as defined in U.S. immigration laws.
The current ruling in the case of Baballah vs. (U.S. Attorney General John) Ashcroft bars the deportation of the Baballah family and makes members eligible for asylum.
At no time during the lengthy hearings and arguments was Baballah's testimony challenged, said attorney Ballout, adding, "In asylum cases of this kind, the government of the alleged persecuting country typically does not get involved."
U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Jocelyn Lopez Wright, who represented the government in the case, said from Washington that department rules precluded her from making any comment.
Ballout said that to the best of his knowledge and that of legal scholars, the case is the first in which an Israeli Arab has been granted asylum in the United States. In a similar case three years ago, the same 9th Circuit Court denied asylum to an Israeli Arab petitioner.
The San Francisco Chronicle cited immigration expert Karen Musalo, a former consultant to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on religious persecution issues, as saying, "This decision shows that the fact that a country is a democratic country doesn't mean that it is incapable of committing human rights violations that can rise to the level of persecution."
In Ballout's opinion, "The court decision is not likely to serve as a precedent, because each asylum request is decided on a different set of circumstances. However, the court did broaden legal thinking by ruling that exposing a person to consistent economic hardship can be considered persecution."
Akko has a population of about 40,000, of which 25 percent consists of Christians, Muslims, Druze and Baha'is.