Scuffles erupted as the villagers and around 150 rights activists tried to stop the police from carrying out the demolitions, with several people wounded and a handful arrested, activists said.

Speaking from a town near Beersheba, Noach said that many of the residents had moved to a nearby graveyard to find shade.

Evacuation notice

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld confirmed the early-morning operation, saying the homes had been "illegally built" and were destroyed in line with a court ruling issued 11 years ago which was never implemented.

"Around 30 shacks were removed and several hundred people were taken back to the Rahat area where they originally came from," he said, referring to a nearby Bedouin town in Israel's arid south.

He said three people had been detained for questioning but were later released without charge.

Noach said Israeli authorities had first given residents of al-Arakib a notice to evacaute on June 15, but that no action had followed, so the residents began to doubt that the demolition would occur.

But this morning, Israeli police arrived and forced residents to leave their homes within minutes, Noach said.

The demolition team destroyed water tanks and removed generators.

"It's like a declaration of war. They don't want you here," Noach said. "It's unthinkable."

The residents are now waiting for aid and will probably set up makeshift tents and facilities on the scene, Noach said.

According to the Negev Co-existence Forum,around half of the 155,000 Bedouins in the Negev - all of whom are Israeli citizens - live in villages that are unrecognised by the government, without municipal services like water and electricity.