The demolition of a Bedouin village in Israel's Negev desert has led human rights groups to warn that a new wave of forced removals of nomadic Arabs could be under way.
Forty-five homes in the village of al-Araqib were bulldozed at dawn a week ago, after a court ruling that they were constructed illegally. Around 300 residents, all Israeli citizens and half of them children, were made homeless in temperatures of up to 40C.
Many more "unrecognised" Bedouin villages in the Negev could face demolition after the approval last month of a plan to transfer large numbers of Bedouin Arabs to government-designated townships in the north of the area.
The planning committee of Beersheba, the largest city in the area, allocated Bedouin villages to three categories: no recognition and full population transfer (12 villages); partial recognition and partial or full transfer (17 villages); and full recognition (13 villages).
Families in the first two categories would be forcibly moved to seven special Bedouin-only townships created by the government. About half the Bedouin population of southern Israel already lives in the townships, which have basic services such as water, electricity and sewage. But the remainder want to remain in their villages, where they can continue with small-scale agriculture and grazing their herds.
"This could well be the opening to more demolitions of Bedouin villages," said Nili Baruch of Bimkom, an Israeli planning rights group. "There is a clear plan and a clear goal."
The Bedouin families in al-Araqib and other villages in the Negev claim ownership of the land on the basis of residency stretching back more than 140 years and the payment of taxes during the Ottoman period and the British mandate. But Israel took over the land shortly after declaring its state in 1948, saying the inhabitants failed to produce deeds proving their ownership. It was then designated a military zone.
"For the past 60 years, the government has been trying to minimise the amount of land for Bedouins," said Yeela Raanan, of the Regional Council for the Unrecognised Villages. Successive plans had sought to concentrate Bedouins into small authorised villages and erase unauthorised communities. "Redeeming the land is part of the Zionist project. Any land held or claimed by Arabs is a problem."
The demolition of al-Araqib came within days of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, warning about the threat of losing a Jewish majority in the Negev.
Speaking to government colleagues about the Jewish nature of the state of Israel, he said: "We are under real attack on this issue. The meaning could be that different elements will demand national rights within Israel, for example, in the Negev, if we allow for a region without a Jewish majority. It has happened in the Balkans, and it is a palpable threat."
Human Rights Watch condemned Israeli policies in the region. "Israel employs systematically discriminatory policies in the Negev," said Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East director.
"It is tearing down historic Bedouin villages before the courts have even ruled on pending legal claims, and is handing out Bedouin land to allow Jewish farmers to set up ranches."
Israel says the Bedouins cultivate land that belongs to the state and build unauthorised homes. The vast area, mostly uninhabited desert, was earmarked several years ago for an ambitious development programme, Blueprint Negev, to attract new Jewish immigrants and Israelis away from the overcrowded coastal cities. Only around 7% of Israel's population lives in the Negev.
The project also aimed to attract Jewish immigrants from abroad, deliberately marketing the challenges of desert living. "Blueprint Negev answers the need for Jews in the diaspora looking to make aliyah [immigration] the pioneering way," according to the former JNF president Ronald Lauder.
Villagers from al-Araqib and their supporters held Friday prayers last week under a makeshift awning close to the twisted metal and rubble that had been their homes. Following a heavily-policed protest, villagers planned to begin rebuilding their community.
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