Tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs are being forced by discriminatory Israeli laws to live in "unrecognised" shanty towns in constant fear of having their homes demolished and their communities torn apart, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.
The agency called for an immediate halt to the systematic demolition of thousands of Bedouin homes since the 1970s and the establishment of an independent commission to investigate "pervasive land and housing discrimination" against Bedouin citizens of Israel in the Negev desert.
The report contrasted Israel's depiction of 45,000 Bedouin homes in 39 unrecognised villages as illegal with what it said was the authorities' willingness to overlook or retrospectively legalise unlawful construction by Jewish citizens and to link them to the water and electricity networks.
Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: " The [Israeli] state has forced [Bedouin] off the land they claimed as their own and into illegal shanty towns, cut off from basic necessities such as water and electricity.
"Israel is willing and able to build new Negev towns for Jewish Israelis seeking a rural way of life, but not for the people who have lived and worked this land for generations. This is grossly unfair."
Israeli policy is for Bedouin in southern Israel to relocate to seven government-planned townships or a group of newly recognised villages. But HRW says the townships are seven of the eight poorest communities in Israel and are ill-equipped to handle large scale arrivals.
It says most Bedouin are reluctant to relocate to the townships "with their deplorable infrastructure, high crime rates, scarce job opportunities, and insufficient land for traditional livelihoods such as herding and grazing." And it adds: "The state requires Bedouin who move to the townships to renounce their ancestral land claims."
Pointing out that the Bedouin community makes up 25 per cent of the population of northern Negev, but controls less than 2 per cent of the land there, the report says the authorities have allocated large tracts of land and funds for Jewish-owned family ranches or farms.
A government-appointed commission led by Justice Eliezer Goldberg is examining land ownership disputes between the Bedouin and the state, which controls 93 per cent of land in Israel through the Israel Lands Authority. The report points out almost half of the ILA's board are members of the Jewish Agency which has an explicit mandate to develop land for Jewish use only.
The report says the Goldberg commission includes no representative from the unrecognised communities and urges it to prohibit discrimination. But it says that an independent inquiry is needed because the state is itself responsible for the "denial of basic rights."