The High Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that a law granting extra Housing Ministry mortgage loan benefits to men and women who have served in the army does not unfairly discriminate against Israeli Arabs.
"The criterion of military service is a relevant one in the context of the Housing Loan Law," wrote retired Supreme Court president Aharon Barak. "It is relevant because of the inability of those who served in the army or performed national service to work and earn a living during the period of their service. This factor has an impact on their economic situation when they apply for a loan in accordance with the above-mentioned law."
According to Housing Ministry regulations, men and women who serve in the army or national service are granted one credit point for each month of service. If both members of a couple serve for the maximum amount of time - 36 months for the husband and 24 months for the wife - they are credited with 60 points, worth about NIS 125,000 in loan benefits.
Wednesday's ruling came in the wake of a petition filed by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Adalah argued that all benefits offered by the state to those who had served in the army or in national service were itemized in the Absorption of Demobilized Soldiers Law. The state could not grant any benefits other than the ones listed in the law. Furthermore, there was no relevant connection between the extra mortgage benefits and military service.
"The fact that there is no relevance means that the law discriminates against the Arab citizens of Israel," wrote Adalah. "This is because most of the Arab population is not required, and is not allowed, to serve in the army."
Barak, Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin and Acting Justice Dvora Berliner rejected Adalah's arguments. There was nothing in the Absorption of Demobilized Soldiers Law that prohibited the government from offering other benefits, they ruled.
As for the charge of unfair discrimination, the court said "not every distinction is an unacceptable one. A distinction based on sound reasoning does not violate equality. Equality does not necessarily mean 'the same.' Not in every case does treating people differently mean discriminatory treatment. Discrimination is distinction for no relevant reason."
In that context, the court ruled that the special benefit given to those who had served in the army or national service was relevant because the Housing Loan Law was offered to those whose income was too low to enable them to afford market mortgage rates.
One of the reasons why those who had served in the army or performed national service were eligible for the government-subsidized loans was the fact that they hadn't earned money during the years of their service.
Adalah said it would ask for a second hearing before an expanded panel of justices.
"The High Court has legitimized the use of criteria which discriminates in the most obvious way against Arab citizens," the organization said. "This ruling contradicts earlier ones by the High Court which asserted that the decisive test of whether an act is discriminatory is its outcome."