UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. human rights chief on Thursday criticized an Israeli plan to demolish dozens of Bedouin villages and move up to 40,000 Arab residents to Israeli-built settlements.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said a bill working its way through the Knesset would wipe out legitimate land claims for the Bedouins in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Her office said the bill, introduced Wednesday, could pass by the end of July.
Israel says the moves are necessary to provide basic services that many nomadic Bedouins lack. The scattered, unrecognized villages do not have electric, water or sewer hookups, roads are bad and many Bedouins are illiterate.
"As citizens of Israel, the Arab Bedouins are entitled to the same rights to property, housing and public services as any other group in Israel," Pillay said. "The government must recognize and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims."
The bill offers Bedouins limited compensation on the condition that they move to one of seven officially recognized urban Bedouin townships the Israeli government has created.
"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.
The Negev Desert Bedouins are estimated to number some 170,000, out of 250,000 Israeli Bedouin. The Bedouin make up 12 percent of the Israeli Arab citizenry.
Israel built seven official townships for the Bedouin from 1968 to 1989, and about half the Bedouin relocated to them. But about half still live in unrecognized villages and claim land rights to an area of about 60,000 hectares (230 square miles).
When Bedouin land claims make it to the Israeli courts, they are usually rejected because the nomadic Bedouin lack documentation and clear title to the land.