TEL AVIV // Human rights groups have condemned an Israeli government plan to forcibly remove 30,000 Bedouin Arabs from their homes in southern Israel, calling it "cruel and discriminatory".
Government ministers are expected to approve a programme that will cost at least six billion shekels (Dh6.5bn) and calls for the relocation of the members of the Arab minority to larger Bedouin communities in the Negev desert, according to reports released at the weekend.
The Bedouins in question live in more than 30 makeshift encampments that are not recognised by Israel as legal villages. These shantytowns house an estimated 30,000 of the 180,000 Bedouins living in the Negev.
The move is likely to infuriate Bedouins, whose relations with the government have long been strained amid disputes over land ownership rights.
Making matters worse, Haaretz newspaper reported on Friday that a Jewish settlement housing as many as 10,000 Israelis in 2,400 units is planned to be constructed in one of the evacuated villages.
Government officials refused to comment on the reports. Bedouin organisations and two human rights groups issued a joint statement last week saying that they had sent a letter to government ministers calling on them to reject the plan. The statement also warned that the relocation plan may provoke confrontations with the Bedouins.
Jazi Abu Kaf, a representative of the unrecognised villages, said: "The plan's main message is the continuation of the destructive and aggressive approach towards the Bedouin population."
Israel has faced charges that its land and housing policies discriminate against the Bedouins and are aimed at ensuring as much land as possible in the Negev is controlled by Jews.
Rawia Aburabia, an attorney at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said the evacuation is "cruel and perpetuates the discrimination".
Rights organisations have claimed Israel prevents many Bedouins from building legally by refusing to recognise their settlements. The groups claim Israel frequently demolishes existing homes and does not supply those that remain with basic needs such as water, sewage and electricity.
At the same time, the state builds Jewish homes and turns a blind eye to unlawful Jewish construction, according to the groups.
Bedouin representatives have denied the government's accusations that their group is trying to take control of the Negev, pointing out that it members reside on only three per cent of the desert's territory while accounting for more than a quarter of its population.
Israel insists that unrecognised Bedouin homes in the shantytowns must be destroyed because they have no permits and have been built without basic infrastructures. The state argues that the families can move to the seven government-planned townships in the Negev, where more than 90,000 Bedouins already live.
Activists say those townships are neglected, overpopulated, have high unemployment and crime rates and lack the agricultural or herding infrastructure that fits with the nomadic lifestyles of most Bedouin.
The government plans that the evacuated Bedouins receive either financial compensation or alternative properties elsewhere.
The roughly 1,000 Bedouin residents of the villages of Atir and Um El Hiran, on which a new Jewish settlement is being planned, intend to fight their relocation in court.
Land ownership disputes between the Bedouin and the Israeli government are nothing new.
The Bedouins lost their land in the 1948 war that created Israel, and the property later became part of a rural Jewish community. In 1956, the Israel government settled them in their current location but never gave the two villages official recognition. The state kept the villages disconnected from basic necessities. A petition filed in the 1970s by the Bedouin tribe to reclaim their pre-1948 land is still pending.
Village residents, enraged that they stand to lose their homes, claim the government is applying pressure on them to leave.
Salim Najah, one of the Bedouin villagers, said: "We came here after the government evacuated us from our former properties. I have children who serve in the Israeli army - how am I supposed to explain to them that their government is forcing them to leave their homes?"