Israel on Sunday approved a plan to settle tens of thousands of desert-dwelling Bedouin in permanent townships, triggering criticism from opponents who say it will displace many from their traditional lands.
The government said it would "as much as possible" grant legal status to villages in the Negev desert that are currently unrecognised by the authorities and where some Bedouin live, if they met unstated minimum population criteria.
A statement said that "most" residents of such communities -- which now receive no government or municipal services -- would be able to continue living there after the villages are granted legal status.
"The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society," the statement quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying.
The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which represents Arab communities in Israel, has described the initiative as a "disaster" which would have "dangerous" consequences.
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"The government is taking over Bedouin lands," Israeli Arab MP Taleb al-Sana told Israeli army radio on Sunday. "We are totally opposed to this."
There are around 160,000 Bedouin in Israel, most of whom live in and around the Negev desert in the country's arid south.
More than half of them live in unrecognised villages without utilities and many of the rest also live in extreme poverty.
"Not only does it reject their land claims," the left-leaning Haaretz daily wrote on Sunday of the government plan.
"It also threatens to demolish 20,000 huts and move the approximately 100,000 people living in them to communities that have not yet been built for them, and will probably not be able to take them in."