10K Druze protest Israel 'Jewish state' law

Illustrative Members of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force stand on an armored vehicle near an IDF soldiers in the Israeli Golan Heights near the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria

10K Druze protest Israel 'Jewish state' law

Tens of thousands of members of Israel's Druze minority and their Jewish supporters, some chanting "equality", packed a central Tel Aviv square Saturday night to rally against a contentious new law that critics say sidelines Israel's non-Jewish citizens.

The Druze, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have managed to survive in a turbulent region by showing loyalty to their country of residence - sometimes at the cost of fighting other Druze on the battlefield.

But when the talk turned to a comment one of the Druze had made about Israel becoming an "apartheid state", the prime minister reportedly walked out in anger.

Palestinian citizens of Israel have long said they are treated as second-class citizens by Israeli authorities, suffering from discriminatory legislation and radically inferior access to public services and infrastructure compared with Jewish citizens.

The law, which passed last month and is part of Israel's so-called basic laws, a de facto constitution, proclaims the country the nation state of the Jewish people.

Israel's Druze minority, now at odds with their nation over what is perceived as a legal marginalization of their civic identity, will be leading the protests, though the demonstrations are meant to represent the struggles of all Israelis outraged by the new law. "We were born here, we will die here, we love this country, we have defended it, and we will continue to live here together - Jews, Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Bedouins, as equal brothers".

Yat Salamy, 53, a Druze teacher, said the law undermined Israel's character as a cosmopolitan country.

The Druze, a religious sect spread throughout Israel, Lebanon and Syria, make up a subset of Israel's Arab population. According to Israeli media, Netanyahu abruptly ended a meeting with Druze officials this week and lawmaker Avi Dichter, a co-sponsor of the law, was heckled by Druze in attendance at another.

Unlike the rest of Israel's 1.9 million Arabic-speaking population, Druze are recruited and serve in the military, and some of them have also reached senior positions in the state apparatus. The Druze revere Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, whose tomb in northern Israel is one of their most sacred sites.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pushed for the legislation, has repeatedly refused any suggestion to amend the law.

Liberal Jewish groups have spoken out against the law, which was also criticized by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. "From this rally, with joint hands and hearts, we go forward for many more years of joint life in Israel in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence".

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