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GENEVA (AFP) – UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Thursday slammed Israeli plans to resettle up to 40,000 Bedouin and demolish 40 villages in the Negev region, urging the government to reconsider them.
"I am alarmed that this bill, which seeks to legitimise forcible displacement and dispossession of indigenous Bedouin communities in the Negev, is being pushed through the Knesset," High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay said in a statement.
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.
The bill was approved by the Israeli government in January and by the parliament in a first reading in June, and two more votes on it are expected.
"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.
"As citizens of Israel, the Arab Bedouin are entitled to the same rights to property, housing and public services as any other group in Israel," she said.
"The government must recognise and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims," Pillay added, regretting that Israel "continues to actively pursue a discriminatory policy of forced displacement against its own Arab citizens".
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.