Protest against Israel Bedouin resettlement plan

Hundreds of people protested in the Negev desert of southern Israel on Thursday against Israeli plans to resettle up to 40,000 Bedouin and demolish 40 villages in the region.

Israeli Arabs and Jews gathered at a highway junction near the town of Beersheba, holding up slogans demanding the government "drop" the plans, as horse-mounted police in riot gear looked on, an AFP correspondent said.

"We're fighting against the Prawer plan. It's like another Nakba (catastrophe) for us," said 24-year-old Etedal Suleiman, resident of a nearby Bedouin village, in historical reference to 760,000 Palestinians fleeing their homes after Israel's creation in 1948.

"They're taking our Arab land," she said. "We're a big family but we only live on one dunam (a quarter acre), and they'll take it to give it to Jewish settlers."

The so-called Prawer-Begin Bill calls for the relocation of 30,000-40,000 Bedouin, the demolition of about 40 villages and the confiscation of more than 700,000 dunums (70,000 hectares) of land in the Negev.

It was approved by the Israeli government in January and by parliament in a first reading in June, and two more votes on it are expected.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay slammed the bill last week, urging the Israeli government to reconsider its plans.

"If this bill becomes law, it will accelerate the demolition of entire Bedouin communities, forcing them to give up their homes, denying them their rights to land ownership, and decimating their traditional cultural and social life in the name of development," Pillay said.

There are about 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.

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.