The Israeli government on Sunday authorized construction plans for two new settlements in the southern Negev region, one of which is slated to be established on territory currently inhabited by a number of unrecognized Bedouin communities.

The planned establishment of Hiran and Kassif was announced during a special cabinet meeting that took place at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute in Sde Boker to mark the fortieth anniversary of the death of Israel’s first prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the decision and declared that the step would further the vision propounded by David Ben-Gurion.

The plan will “expedite the development of the entire Negev,” the prime minster said, adding that Ben-Gurion “very much wanted to achieve” such a goal.

Hiran, which is set to be erected at the site of the unrecognized Bedouin villages of Umm al-Hiran and Atir, will initially include 2,500 housing units, and its future population will comprise a religious community as well as several secular families, Haaretz reported.

The report said that the city of Kassif is expected to include about 12,000 housing units and will be settled mainly by ultra-Orthodox families.

Several Bedouin villagers and environmental activists gathered outside the cabinet meeting in order to protest the expected displacement of the residents of Umm al-Hiran and Atir, police said. Four activists were arrested by police, among them former member of Knesset Talab El-Sana.

Next week, the Supreme Court is expected to debate an appeal filed by Umm al-Hiran residents against their planned eviction.

Umm al-Hiran, home to nearly 500 residents, was established by the Bedouin Al-Qia’an tribe in 1956 in coordination with the IDF, after a nearly decade-long dispute. Following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the tribe members were evicted by Israeli soldiers from their homes in the northwestern Negev, near Kibbutz Shoval, and lived in various locations until finally settling in Umm al-Hiran.

Since its establishment, the officially unsanctioned village has not been hooked up to water or electricity and has never been included in an official governmental zoning plan. New construction is forbidden at the site.

MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) condemned the government’s decision and said nothing could justify establishing new communities in place of older ones.

“There is plenty of land to settle in the Negev,” Rozin said. “Unwarranted harm to a weakened population does not strengthen the Negev and certainly does not strengthen Israel.”

The establishment of Kassif and Hiran was also criticized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which claimed that the construction would devastate parts of the Negev landscape and prove harmful to indigenous wildlife.

“The development of new communities, which includes the construction of housing and infrastructure, damages the area, reduces the amount of open space, interrupts the continuity of open spaces and leads to the destruction of habitats as well as ecological damage,” a statement issued by SPNI read.