Thousands of Bedouins demonstrated in the southern city of Beersheva on Thursday to protest against a government project they say will displace tens of thousands of people from their land.
The demonstrators rallied in the city centre shouting: “This land is ours, we are staying here!” and holding up signs reading: “No to the Praver plan” and “Social justice for all!” an AFP correspondent said.
Last month, the Israeli government approved the so-called Praver plan in a bid to address the problem of unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev desert of southern Israel.
Although the government says it will help the Bedouin better integrate into Israeli society, the proposal was formulated without any consultation with the community, with rights groups slamming it as a major blow to Bedouin rights and warning it would forcefully uproot tens of thousands from their land.
Organisers said thousands had joined the demonstration, but police put the number at just over 1,000.
Among the demonstrators were Arab Israeli MPs, local council leaders, Israeli activists and many civil society groups, all of whom were calling for the Bedouin to be allowed to remain on their land.
Speaking to AFP, Ibrahim al-Waqili, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages, said Bedouin towns and villages across the Negev were observing a general strike to denounce the scheme.
“We are observing a general strike and demonstrating in Beersheva to protest against the Praver plan which will take 700 dunams (107 acres, 70 hectares) of our land and displace more than 30,000 people,” he said.
“This demonstration is a warning that the government must stop this plan,” Waqili said. “No-one in the government consulted us and we reject it.”
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which represents Arab communities in Israel, on Wednesday described the Praver initiative as a “disaster” which would have “dangerous” consequences in a statement obtained by AFP.
There are around 160,000 Bedouin in Israel, most of whom live in and around the Negev desert.
More than half of them live in unrecognised villages without municipal services like water and electricity, and much of the rest also live in extreme poverty.