Israel has cancelled a bill that would have evicted 40,000 Palestinian Bedouin citizens living in the country’s southern Negev desert, after it was met with widespread protests and vocal opposition from both right- and left-wing groups.
The Israeli government’s Prawer-Begin plan, officially known as the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, was postponed on Thursday, an advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
“Right and left, Arabs and Jews joined forces – while exploiting the plight of many Bedouin – to heat things up for political gain,” said Benny Begin, a former Israeli cabinet minister who helped formulate the plan, in a press conference.
Begin said that given the current reality he was forced to recommend that the proposed bill be shelved, a suggestion immediately approved by Netanyahu.
“There is no majority in the coalition for the bill,” he said.
Begin said Netanyahu had also agreed to “carry out the development plan for Bedouin settlements in the coming years”, suggesting that the plan would be revised, not cancelled entirely.
The Prawer-Begin plan called for the evacuation of 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel, the demolition several dozen villages and the confiscation of more than 700,000 dunams (70,000 hectares) of Negev land.
The plan would have moved the Bedouin from so-called unrecognised villages into government-planned towns, where poverty is high and services are few. About 200,000 Bedouin currently live in the country’s southern Negev desert.
Half of those live in seven crowded Israeli townships, while the other half live in 35 villages, which lack basic services such as running water, electricity, paved roads or schools.
Israel says these villages are illegal, accusing the Bedouin of a conducting a land grab in the Negev.
The government said its proposal aimed to modernise the Bedouin, and improve their quality of life. It said it had earmarked $340m – to be spread over the next five years – to support the community’s development.
But human rights groups said the plan failed to recognise Bedouin land claims and ignored the community’s needs. It had also been condemned internationally.
The bill had been bogged down in the Israeli parliament’s interior committee, where far-rightists opposed its offer of cash and land ownership to the Bedouin.
Earlier in the week, Yariv Levin, a Knesset member from Netanyahu’s Likud party and head of the coalition government, said he would not pass the Prawer-Begin Plan into law.
Orit Struck, an MK from the right-wing Jewish Home party, said the decision to cancel the bill proved that “correct political actions can change past mistakes”.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Mohamed Barakeh, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, welcomed the move, but warned of “excessive optimism” since the plan was “still on in essence”.
The “struggle for our people in the Naqab (Negev) must continue”, Barakeh said.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, said: “The Israeli government’s fortunate failure to pass this discriminatory law is an opportunity to start treating Bedouin as equal citizens.”
Clashes broke out between protesters and Israeli police during “Day of Rage” demonstrations against the Prawer-Begin plan on December 1. Activists hailed Thursday’s decision as a major victory.