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The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday granted asylum to a family of Arab Israelis, making a rare finding that a powerful U.S. ally had persecuted its own citizens. In reversing the rulings of several immigration judges, a unanimous panel not only said the backdrop of Arab-Israeli violence is a factor that counts for, not against, asylum claims, but also ruled that so-called “economic persecution” supports a bid for a new life in America. “When analyzed in the aggregate, the physical assaults and economic harassment endured by [Abrahim] Baballah compel a finding of persecution,” Judge Richard Paez wrote. He was joined by Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Sidney Thomas. In 1992, Baballah showed up at San Francisco International Airport with his wife and child in tow, having fled what he described as a 10-year pattern of harassment by Israeli military personnel. He claimed that partly because of his ethnicity (he is the son of Jewish and Arab parents), he was unable to get a job, first as an accountant and then as a lifeguard. When he took up fishing, military patrols sprayed his boat with high-powered hoses and fired bullets over his head. Fearing for their safety, Baballah’s fishing crew eventually abandoned him. His brother was also harassed and sent to prison for a year, resulting in a “mental impairment,” according to Baballah’s claim. Immigration lawyers say it’s rare to see successful asylum claims from powerful democratic allies of the United States. “The notion that the Israeli state is abusive to some of its citizens is one — because of the political situation — that is harder to establish than, say, the notion of the Guatemalan state,” said Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C. Baballah’s lawyer downplayed that aspect. “We brought this case because someone was afraid of going back — and he happens to be from Israel,” said Burlingame solo Haitham Ballout. He said the family can now run its San Jose-area restaurant with “peace and certainty.” Still, Ballout said the case may be the first of its kind. “I don’t know of any Israeli Arab living within the 1948 borders that has been given asylum,” he said. An immigration judge had dismissed the claims, saying they were part and parcel of Middle East tensions that have existed for decades. But the Ninth Circuit said that if an immigrant can point to specific instances of persecution, a backdrop of violence should support, not diminish, his claim. “The IJ’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,” Paez wrote. Paez also wrote that Baballah did not have to show that he would be completely deprived of a chance to earn a living, merely that his persecutors “deliberately caused him economic suffering.” “That’s really the nice thing about this case,” Ballout said. “It’s not really a breakthrough, but it is the reaffirmation of cases that have come through the Ninth Circuit.” One immigration lawyer not involved in the case said Baballah v. Ashcroft, 03 C.D.O.S. 6079, is unlikely to have a widespread impact. Though there are parts of the decision immigration lawyers will find helpful, said Robert Jobe, “it seems to me to be a pretty clear-cut decision. The guy had been harassed for a decade.”

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