Thousands of Bedouin marched in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on Thursday to protest a government plan to settle tens of thousands of their desert-dwelling people in permanent townships, media reported.
Public radio said the protesters carried Palestinian flags and banners of the Israeli Islamic movement, chanting “With our blood and our spirit we will redeem the Negev,” referring to the desert where most Israeli Bedouin live.
The radio station did not give a number of participants, saying only that “thousands” filled the city centre, blocking traffic.
Police said about 700 attended the main demonstration with another 2,000 people in the surrounding streets.
The broadcaster said 85,000 Bedouin children also stayed away from school as part of a community-wide general strike, with a large number of women and children at the rally.
The cabinet approved the resettlement plan in January and it is now before parliament.
The government has said it would “as much as possible” grant legal status to Negev villages that are currently unrecognised by the authorities if they met a minimum population criteria.
But those criteria have never been stated.
A cabinet statement has said “most” residents — who do not currently receive government or municipal services — would be able to continue living in their homes after the villages are granted legal status.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which represents Arab communities in Israel, has described the initiative as a “disaster” that would have “dangerous” consequences.
Awad Abdel Fattah, a member of the committee, told AFP the struggle would escalate over the next 10 days, ahead of a debate on the decision in the Israeli parliament scheduled for June 24.
“People are angry,” he said following the demonstration. “We prevented several clashes between young people and police.”
Abdel Fattah, who lives in northern Israel and is not a Bedouin, said “the problem was not only of the Bedouin of the Negev, but of the general Arab population”.
He said they were planning a general strike in the Arab sector and a sit-in by the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.
Abdel Fattah said that Israel has been expropriating lands from its Arab citizens over the years, and “now they want to take the remaining reserve of the land”.
There are around 260,000 Bedouin in Israel, mostly living in and around the Negev in the arid south.
More than half live in unrecognised villages without utilities and many also live in extreme poverty.