Israel drops controversial Bedouin relocation plan

Israel was planning on relocationg thousands of Bedouins residing in Negev desert

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Israel is scrapping a controversial draft law to relocate tens of thousands of longtime Bedouin residents of the Negev desert, an official said Thursday.

Benny Begin, tasked with implementing the so-called Prawer Plan, said he had recommended to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "end the debate on the law" in parliament.

"The prime minister accepted this proposal," he said at a Tel Aviv news conference, days after it emerged that the governing coalition was divided on the proposed legislation.

The bill, which would have seen the demolition of some 40 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev and the relocation of between 30,000 and 40,000 people, passed a preliminary ministerial vote in January.

But it was opposed by MPs both from the right, who said the compensation offered in land and money was too generous, and from the left, who said it was racist and accused the Jewish state of usurping the land of indigenous Arabs.

After a heated debate this week of the parliamentary interior committee, coalition chairman Yariv Levin of Netanyahu's Likud party said he would not pass the Prawer Plan into law.

Begin rejected the notion that a series of demonstrations in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip against the plan forced the about-turn.

"There is no majority in the coalition for the bill," he said.

Had the Prawer Plan been adopted, it would have also seen the confiscation of more than 700,000 dunams (70,000 hectares) of land claimed by the Bedouin community.

Orit Struk, an MP for the far-right Jewish Home, commended the decision to strike down the bill, which she described as "wrong and unjust".

Begin's move proved that "correct political actions can change past mistakes," she said in a statement.

Arab Israeli MP Mohammed Barakeh of Hadash also welcomed the move, but warned of "excessive optimism" since the plan was "still on in essence" and the "struggle for our people in the Naqab (Negev) must continue."

Human Rights Watch's Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said: "The Israeli government's fortunate failure to pass this discriminatory law is an opportunity to start treating Bedouin as equal citizens."

And the Association of Civil Rights for Israel (ACRI) said that "now the government has an opportunity to have a real dialogue with the Bedouin community in the Negev".

It said the Bedouin wanted "to solve the problem of the unrecognised villages and live in Israel as citizens with full rights."

Adalah, the Arab-Israeli association which spearheaded the campaign against the plan, welcomed the news.

"The withdrawal of the Prawer Plan bill is a major achievement in the history of the Palestinian community in Israel," it said.

"It shows that popular action, legal advocacy and international pressure can succeed in defending the rights of 70,000 Arab Bedouin residents of the unrecognised villages in the Naqab to live with freedom and dignity on their own lands and in their villages."

About 260,000 Bedouin live in Israel, mostly in and around the Negev in the arid south. More than half live in unrecognised villages without utilities and many of them in extreme poverty.

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