Tel Aviv, Aug 4 (AP) - Thousands of members of Israel's Druze minority and their Jewish supporters packed a central Tel Aviv square Saturday night to rally against a contentious new law that critics say sidelines Israel's non-Jewish citizens.
It marked the first time in recent memory that the Druze community, typically fiercely loyal to the state, staged a large public protest.
High-ranking Druze reserve military officers were expected to speak at the rally attended by Jewish former defense officials and others who flocked to Rabin Square in solidarity. Israeli media said tens of thousands par-ticipated in the protest.
Israel's 1948 declaration of independence defined the country as a Jewish and democratic state. The govern-ment says the bill merely enshrines the country's existing character, but critics say it undercuts Israel's demo-cratic values and marginalizes the country's Arab minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the population. One clause of the bill downgrades the Arabic language from official to "special" standing.
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. Protest leaders emphasized that only those two flags, not the Palestinian flag, would fly at the rally.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Cabinet ministers have met with Druze leaders to try and pacify their concerns. But recent meetings did not go well. 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.
Like other minorities, the Druze have been outraged by the law, which they say renders them second-class citi-zens. Several Druze military officers recently said they would stop serving in response to it, sparking fears of widespread insubordination.
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. In Israel, they have been fiercely loyal to the state and have risen to high office in the military and politics.
Unlike most of the Arab population, which largely identifies with the Palestinians, the Druze see themselves as patriotic Israelis who have shed blood in the country's defense. Military figures often invoke the "alliance of blood" between Jews and Druze.
Israeli Druze leaders say their alliance with Jews dates back long before they helped them win independence in 1948. The Druze revere Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, whose tomb in northern Israel is one of their most sacred sites. Israel's 130,000 Druze live mostly in the north of the country.