Residents of a Bedouin community in the Negev on Monday clashed with police in a melee that saw dozens of schoolchildren taken to hospital after inhaling tear gas and left each side accusing the other of wrongdoing.

The incident began when Israel Lands Administration officials, accompanied by police, entered the Bedouin community of Bir Hadaj to deliver demolition orders for illegal structures. When the officials arrived, they were met by dozens of youths who pelted them with stones and set tires ablaze. Police responded, and a violent confrontation ensued in which 19 people were arrested.

According to residents, the police used excessive force, including rubber bullets and tear gas, against the protesters. In addition, they said, tear gas was fired at a nearby school, forcing the evacuation of nearly 30 students aged 7-13 to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. After a brief examination, all were discharged.

“Their purpose wasn’t just to deliver demolition orders,” community leader Suleiman Abu Hamid was quoted by Army Radio as saying. “They deliberately came equipped with tear gas and riot gear; they went into a school and fired tear gas into the classrooms, and as a result, a large number of children were taken to Soroka for treatment.”

The police rejected the accusations, claiming that while officers did fire tear gas, it was 300 meters away from the school.

“These are masked, violent outlaws who systematically ignore the rule of law and don’t allow the enforcement of legal demolition orders and the posting of notifications about illegal buildings,” police told Army Radio.

Police added that the rioters threw rocks at vehicles on a road adjoining the community and set fire to buildings in nearby Kibbutz Revivim.

Last month, 2,000 residents of the community demonstrated in Beersheba against house demolitions.

Bir Hadaj is not an officially recognized Bedouin community, and although a development plan that would render it legal has been drawn up, it is yet to be authorized. As a result, any construction in the community is considered illegal and therefore subject to demolition.

It is estimated that approximately half of some 250,000 Bedouin living in Israel reside in approximately 45 unrecognized villages.