THE destruction began just before midday when Israeli security forces fanned out to form a line on a hill overlooking the tiny Bedouin settlement. Armed with guns, sprays and batons, the police moved forward with military precision, led by a paramilitary force called the Green Patrol. Out of sight, reinforcements sat in a fleet of vehicles in case of resistance by the Arab villagers, while behind the police line three bulldozers revved their engines ominously. Once they reached the bottom of the hill, officers vaulted a fence, then began clearing the village systematically. As police entered homes and ordered families to vacate, people were still inside frantically trying to salvage clothes and possessions.

Some of the Bedouin, resigned to their fate, were already on the move, carrying pets, potted plants and kitchen utensils, but others lingered and pleaded for more time. As one old woman left her home for the last time she wept and looked to the sky, while her daughter turned and spat in the direction of a policewoman videoing the operation.

"I hope you show your film so the world can see this ethnic cleansing," she shouted in Arabic. From another shack two women wearing black abiyas appeared, carrying a sofa. They struggled with it for about 20 yards until they gave up, exhausted, and sat on it for one last time under the shade of a small tree. Staring ahead in stunned silence, they remained there briefly until policeman arrived waving their arms to shoo them away as if herding cattle or sheep. The youngest Bedouin evictee, five-day-old Mohammed, was carried away by his mother in a blue plastic bucket seat, sleeping and oblivious to the plight of his tribe and three elder siblings.

"Where will we go?" asked his mother, Khatan, as she walked away from the area she grew up in. According to Israel, these Bedouin Arabs have no rights to live on this desert land in the Negev region of the Jewish state. This community, close to the town of Be'er Sheva in the south of the country and known as an "unrecognised village", was home to members of the al-Atrash tribe for nearly 30 years until the authorities arrived on Tuesday to destroy it.

As 20 homes were razed to the ground, an official from the Israel Land Administration said the settlement was illegal and that security forces were executing a ruling made by the Be'er Sheva magistrates' court in 2000. "The land is state land. They the Negev Bedouin do not have a link to this land. The court gave a verdict and we are fulfilling it," said the official monitoring the demolitions.

The al-Atrash tribe had made numerous appeals against the order, but a few days earlier a judge had ruled that the destruction of the village must take place. Some residents claimed they had not been served with any notice and found out only when police arrived at dawn. The Bedouin insist they have legal and moral rights to the land and claim the first recorded settlement of their ancestors dates back 7000 years.

As we watched the bulldozers plough into the ramshackle huts, demolishing them with ease and sending clouds of dust swirling through the air, Hussein Al-Rafaya, president of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages (RCUV), said the tribe had nowhere to go.

"Where can they go? Most say they have no choice but to stay and pitch tents. And then the police will come back. They say these are illegal homes because we don't have permits, but it is impossible for the Bedouin to get a permit - it is Catch 22. This is like apartheid, like South Africa," he said.

These Bedouin are among an estimated 62,000 Arabs who live under the sword of Damocles in 45 "unrecognised villages" in the Negev. They are Israeli citizens and taxpayers but face the constant threat of forced removal and have limited, if any, access to services such as education, refuse collection, water and electricity supplies. Although Arabs, many Bedouin opt to do national service in the Israeli army, and they are not politicised in the same way as Palestinians - not yet, anyway.

Both the Ottoman Empire and the British in Palestine in the 1920s acknowledged Bedouin rights, but the Israeli government refuses to accept their land claims. As a consequence, the 45 unrecognised villages have no legal status and are not signposted on roads or marked on official maps.

After remonstrating with police, al-Rafaya showed me a document from the British Mandate that he claims granted land rights to his people. "Israel has ripped this up and has taken away everything from us. We are an invisible people," he said angrily.

The Bedouin claim they have suffered persecution since Israel was established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war when many of them fled the Negev, or were expelled to Egypt and Jordan. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel passed laws enabling the government to lay claim to large areas of the Negev where the Bedouin had formerly owned or used the land. Planning authorities ignored the existence of Bedouin villages when they created Israel's first master plan in the late 1960s, embedding discrimination in policies that continue today, some 40 years later.

Government policy was summed up in 1963 by Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli general and politician, who said: "We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat, in industry, services, construction, and agriculture: 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them.

"Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations. Without coercion but with governmental direction this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear."

In 1979, Ariel Sharon continued Dayan's thinking by declaring a 1500sqkm area of the Negev a protected nature reserve. He also established the Green Patrol to stop tribes entering the area. During Sharon's tenure as agriculture minister between 1977 and 1981, the Green Patrol - in effect an environmental paramilitary group - removed 900 Bedouin encampments. Today the Bedouin occupy just 2% of the Negev.

During the 1970s, Israel built townships for the Bedouin and promised them services in exchange for the renunciation of their ancestral land. Around half of the indigenous population accepted, as grazing restrictions had denied them access to sources of sustenance for their animals. But the other half resisted in the hope of retaining some of their traditions and customs. In 1984, the courts ruled that the Negev Bedouin had no land ownership claims, effectively making their existing settlements illegal.

Israel says the Arabs could move into the towns. and as long as they refuse to do so the demolitions will continue. The Bedouin say they do not wish to inhabit urban areas, as it goes against the natural grain of who they are.

"Conditions there are terrible for the Bedouin anyway, with disease, crime and high unemployment," al-Rafaya said.

One factor in the removal of the Bedouin, according to the RCUV, is to make space for 250,000 new Jewish immigrants over the next five years, as part of a plan called Blueprint Negev to develop the south because of overpopulation in the north.

At least 59 new Jewish settlements have been established in the Negev. While Blueprint Negev includes money for development of the government-run Bedouin townships, the unrecognised villages are in grave danger. "This is ethnic cleansing to make room for Jews and it is a taste of things to come for our people," al-Rafaya claimed.

As the al-Atrash village morphed into smashed wood, metal and corrugated iron, piled high like bonfires, al-Rafaya pointed to a settlement about two miles away.

"That is Givoat Bar, a new Jewish settlement. How can these people be allowed to live there when many were not even born in Israel?" he said.

In March, Human Rights Watch said Israel should declare an immediate moratorium on demolitions of Bedouin homes and investigate discrimination against its citizens in the Negev. "Israel is willing and able to build new Negev towns for Jewish Israelis seeking a rural way of life, but not for the people who have lived and worked this land for generations. This is grossly unfair," a report said.

For the al-Atrash people, salt was rubbed into their wounds as their expulsion came a matter of days after a state-appointed commission recommended that many unrecognised villages be accepted as legal. The government-appointed Goldberg Commission, charged with arriving at a solution for the permanent settlement of Bedouin, called on the government to recognise villages to alleviate an "unbearable situation". Some 66% live below the poverty line: they are the poorest people in Israel and suffer due to a lack of water and proper sanitation.

The commission said the villages should be recognised and the Bedouin properly compensated. The Cabinet is expected to consider the report for approval by the end of the month. But all this will be too late for the al-Atrash tribe, who doubt that much will change even if the government accepts the report. "Israel makes up the rules as it goes along, and there are laws for Jews and laws for Arabs," said al-Rafaya.

His comment was brought into sharp focus on the day of the eviction by a meeting thousands of miles away in London. There are around 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, in breach of international law, and during talks with the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, UK prime minister Gordon Brown raised his concerns. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Olmert criticised Brown for instructing the Foreign Office to warn British citizens against buying property in these settlements.

"There is no justification for what you are now doing. During my time as prime minister no new settlements have been built and you know it," Olmert said.

Last week, however, statistics published by the Ariel University Centre of Samaria showed that the Jewish population of the West Bank has grown three times as fast as the general Israeli population over the past decade. The study found that, over the past 12 years, the settler population grew by 107%. Over the same period, the general Israeli population grew by only 29%. This trend was maintained over the last three years.

All the Bedouin want is a traditional life and the same rights as other Israeli citizens. At the al-Atrash settlement there was no resistance, and by 2pm the bulldozers were finished and the village was destroyed. On a hill, the Bedouin sat watching quietly, contemplating their fate.

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