Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem Sunday, July 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)

Tel Aviv - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended a new law that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, saying it provided a means of preventing Palestinians from gaining residency status in Israel.

The Nation-State Law, passed last month, declares Israel as the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people and downgrades the status of the Arabic language. 

The law has been met with fierce criticism, especially from the Druze and Arab minorities in Israel, who say the law prioritizes the country's Jewish character over its democratic character.

On Sunday, Netanyahu said the law will prevent the "exploitation of the family reunification clause under which very, very many Palestinians have been absorbed" into Israel since the 1990s.

"This law helps prevent the continued uncontrolled entry into Israel of Palestinians," Netanyahu said.

Arab citizens of Israel can request residency status for a Palestinian family member or spouse, typically living in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Israel placed restrictions on family reunification in 2003, citing security concerns.

According to Israeli rights group Hamoked, citing Interior Ministry figures, in 2016 over 12,000 Palestinians had status in Israel through family reunification.

Tens of thousands of Israelis, led by Druze activists, held a rally against the legislation in Tel Aviv late Saturday.