22 August 2006

Haifa District Court Issues Precedent-Setting Judgment that Considering Military Service Criterion in Allocation of Housing at Haifa University Discriminates Against Arab Students

On 17 August 2006, the Haifa District Court issued a precedent-setting judgment that the inclusion of military service (participation in military, national, or army reserve service and serving as student soldiers) as a criterion for determining the allocation of student housing at the University of Haifa is illegal, because affording this particular benefit to former soldiers is not enumerated in the “The Absorption of Discharged Soldiers Law – 1994” and in addition it discriminates against Arab students on the basis of national belonging. The Court also decided that the use of the “military service criterion” in the allocation of student housing should be cancelled, and ordered the University of Haifa to pay legal expenses in the sum of NIS 10,000.

This decision comes in response to a petition filed by Adalah to the Court on 26 October 2005, in which it demanded that the Court declare illegal Haifa University's policy of including military service as a criterion for student housing. Adalah argued that the inclusion of this criterion discriminates against Arab students, most of whom are exempt from military service, on the basis of national belonging.

The Court accepted Adalah's argument that Haifa University's student housing policy should comply with constitutional criteria and principles, first and foremost the principles of equality and objectivity. Therefore, the Court decided that the University must examine the economic circumstances of each individual student and make a decision solely on that basis. The Court's decision further emphasized that the clear result of the inclusion of the military service criterion among the criteria for allocating student accommodation discriminates against Arab students.

The decision is precedent-setting as it represents the first incidence in which an Israeli Court has decided: that the military service criterion discriminates against Arab students; that Haifa University has discriminated against Arab students; and that the use of this criterion to afford benefits to former soldiers beyond those benefits included in The Absorption of Discharged Soldiers Law is illegal. The petition was filed by Adalah on behalf of three Arab women students whose requests for housing were denied by the University and in Adalah's own name. As Adalah stressed in the petition, the three students' request were turned down in spite of their poor economic circumstances and the difficulties involved in reaching the University from their homes on public transport. Adalah Attorney Sawsan Zaher represented the petitioners in the case.

The Dormitory Committee at Haifa University uses a points-based system to decide which students will be granted student housing. In the fall of 2005, students scoring 61 points and above qualified for student housing in the university's dormitories. The points-based system, which is approved by the university's administration, is broken down into the following categories: economic situation (0-25 points), academic achievement (0-25 points), distance from the student's home to the campus (0-28 points), and “special data” (0-25 points).

Under the category of “special data,” applicants who have participated in military or, national service or who are student soldiers are automatically granted 20 points, and applicants with army reserve service receive an additional five points. As a result, these students automatically enter the application process with between 33% and 41% of the points required to qualify for student housing, giving them an unfair advantage over students who have not performed military service, and who enter the process with zero points.

Adalah argued that participation in military service does not reflect students' needs for university housing, making it an irrelevant criterion, used to exclude Arab citizens of Israel. Adalah emphasized that students who have served in the Israeli military already receive substantial benefits under The Absorption of Discharged Soldiers Law, which enumerates all the social and economic benefits to which former soldiers are entitled, providing them with compensation including housing and educational grants. Haifa University is therefore illegitimately providing additional benefits to students who have performed military service.

Adalah also noted in the petition that this policy particularly discriminates against Arab women, as religious Jewish women perform non-military service and receive the equivalent number of points according to the university's system of allocating accommodation on campus.

In its written responses to the Court, the University of Haifa claimed that in practice other criteria, including geographical distance, favor Arab students. As evidence, the University stated that the percentage of Arab students living in student accommodation exceeds the percentage of Arab students among applicants for housing at the University. The Court rejected this argument, however, deciding that, as the Arab minority in Israel in general suffers from a poor economic status, it is to be expected that the number of Arab students whose requests for housing are accepted would be relatively high. The Court further decided that the University's argument does not negate the fact that the military service criterion discriminates against Arab students.

Adalah's former legal apprentice, Attorney Abeer Jubran, assisted in the preparation of the petition.

Lawsuit 217/05, Haneen Na'amneh, et. al. v. Haifa University

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