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Tens of thousands of Israeli Druze have gathered in central Tel Aviv to protest Israel's controversial "Jewish state" law.

Hundreds of five-colored Druze flags - rarely seen outside the community - fluttered alongside Israeli flags, and mustachioed Druze elders, wearing red and white fezzes, cheered ahead of speeches by Druze and Jewish leaders.

Israeli Druze leaders say their alliance with Jews dates back long before they helped them win independence in 1948.

Israel's hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to assuage Druze fears by meeting with their representatives after the law was passed. Led by Israel's Druze minority, the crowd, filling almost every square foot of the city's central square, repeatedly cheered "Equality!" as speakers railed against the recently passed legislation. The critics of the bill argue that such wording makes some 1.8 million Israeli Arabs, a quarter of the population, second-class citizens.

Without the Nationality Law it is impossible to guarantee for generations that Israel will remain a Jewish state, the prime minister declared.

The law gave constitutional backing to the Law of Return, which grants automatic immigration and naturalization rights to Jews around the world, as well as to laws preventing Palestinians from getting Israeli citizenship by marrying Israelis and laws seeking to prevent future asylum seekers from entering Israel.

"All our lives we took pride in an enlightened, democratic, and free state of Israel with the freedom and dignity of man as a supreme value".

"We are all Israelis", he said.

It marked the first time in recent memory that the Druze community, typically fiercely loyal to the state, staged a large public protest.

Parallel demonstrations took place in several Druze and Arab towns in Israel, and in Haifa.

Dr. Hanifas went on stage at a scholarship award ceremony Thursday and called Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Avi Dichter a Nazi, saying that the nation state bill "will ensure our status as second class citizens" and that "nobody will stop us from challenging this racist law". I want to tell them: "There is nothing in this law that infringes on your rights as equal citizens of the state of Israel, and there is nothing in it that harms the special status of the Druze community in Israel", Netanyahu said on Sunday.

Dozens of protesters erected a huge sign blaring the words "Crime Minister" and bearing an image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, the meetings and implications of new pro-Druze legislation have not eased their discontent, with a number of junior Druze military officers resigning from the Israeli army in protest. Support of Druze religious, educational, and cultural institutions would also be included in the legislation.

The Druze serve in the military, unlike most of the country's Arab citizens, who overwhelmingly follow Sunni Islam and have close family ties with Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.


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