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RAHAT, Israel (AP) - Israel on Thursday suspended a contentious bill aimed at resettling nomadic Bedouin Arabs into government-recognized villages after a series of objections rendered the plan politically untenable.
The man behind the ambitious program, former Cabinet minister Benny Begin, called the Bedouin in Israel's southern Negev desert the country's most discriminated minority and bemoaned that political forces had derailed a plan he said aimed to help the community.
"Right and left, Arabs and Jews joined forces _ while exploiting the plight of many Bedouin _ to heat things up for political gain," he said in a hastily arranged 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Liberal opponents said the plan would confiscate Bedouin land and affect their nomadic way of life while hardliners thought it was too generous. Others said the Bedouin were not consulted and the plan, which called for uprooting thousands and relocating them into new towns, was being forced upon them.
"The government now has an opportunity to conduct real and honest dialogue with the Negev Bedouin community and its representatives," the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said after Thursday's announcement. "The Negev Bedouin seek a solution to the problem of the unrecognized villages, and a future in Israel as citizens with equal rights."
A pair of Bedouin representatives reached by telephone had no immediate comment.
The government insisted its moves were necessary to provide basic services that many Bedouins lack and would benefit their community while preserving their traditions. The government body dealing with the plan said it calls for the vast majority of Bedouin to live where they are. It said it is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in housing, health, public services and education for the Bedouin in an effort to lift them out of poverty.
The proposed law had sought to resolve decades-old land claims by the Bedouin community to pave the way for a large-scale development plan in the southern desert area, one of the few remaining open spaces in this densely populated country.
Bedouins are a small group within the Arab minority. Traditionally, they have identified more closely with Israel than their Arab brethren, but their complaints against the resettlement program echoed broader sentiments among other Arab Israelis. Some opponents have held violent demonstrations in recent weeks.
In a dusty, unrecognized village in the Negev, with no connection to electricity lines or water mains, Zanoun Odeh said he did not know what the future would hold for him and his children.
Prior to Thursday's announcement, Odeh said the plan did not clearly lay out the fate of each village. In his home in Rahme, 1,200 people live in dilapidated shacks with corrugated tin roofs and electricity provided by generators. He said the village doesn't have a single computer, highlighting the gap with Israel's otherwise modern society.
"Not a single Bedouin opposes having electricity and water, but he also wants his rights to be preserved," said Odeh, 58, wearing a traditional robe and headscarf.
The plan was to see the arrival of two huge army bases, expanded roads and rail networks and the creation of new Jewish and Bedouin communities. The relocation plan is a key part of the law known as Prawer-Begin, named after the officials who drew it up, and roused fierce opposition from Arab-Israeli legislators and human rights activists, who called it a thinly veiled land grab tinged with anti-Arab racism.
While Arab leaders have lambasted the plan, the sentiments of the Bedouin themselves appeared to be mixed. Embittered by years of poverty and discrimination, some viewed any Israeli offer with suspicion. Others said it was imperfect but offered an alternative to the current living situation.
Under the $2 billion plan, Israel was to grant 12,000 Bedouin land claimants 50 percent of their territory, while seizing the remaining half in exchange for compensation. More than $300 million was to be spent on improving infrastructure, building schools and fostering employment.
The law intended to legalize some 10 Bedouin villages but some 40,000 Bedouin were to be uprooted from their homes and resettled into new government-built towns over the next 10 years. As an incentive to move, Israel was offering young bachelors and married couples a free plot of land in the new towns and about $28,000.
Bedouin Arabs have strong nomadic traditions, and they have frequently clashed with the government over land claims. Many Bedouin have lived in their unrecognized homes and towns for decades, but few have any documentation. Israel has often responded to the unrecognized villages with demolition orders.
Some 205,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, with more than half in the recognized villages. While Israel has in the past recognized 17 villages and the large town of Rahat, conditions there have not set a welcome precedent for the redevelopment plan. Bedouins say those towns are rife with crime, poverty and the same lack of basic services they currently face. The urban setting also makes their traditional occupation, raising livestock, much more difficult.
"If you could point to a success story over the last 10 years with urbanization, if you could point to prosperity or employment, we would say `OK. There is some sort of future here.' But urbanization has been a failure," said Tom Mehager of Adalah, an advocacy group for Israel's Arab citizens. The group says Israel should legalize all 35 unrecognized villages.
Israeli Arabs, who make up about one-fifth of Israel's 8 million people, have long contended that despite their citizenship, they are victims of official discrimination. While some Arabs have made strides in recent years in entering the Israeli mainstream, they are on average poorer and less educated than their Jewish counterparts, and many complain that Israeli security services view them as a threat. The Bedouins make up an impoverished subgroup of Israeli Arabs.
To counter the opposition, Israel points to projects for the Bedouin already in the works, such as an industrial area near Rahat and a government-funded job and training center.
Some Bedouin, like Salem al-Wakili, a former head of an umbrella group representing unrecognized villages, said that despite its flaws, the now doomed plan had offered a chance to resolve longstanding issues.
"I can't oppose economic development, employment, training, education and the recognition of villages," said al-Wakili. "What is the alternative? Poverty, the status quo and demolitions."
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