Israel has given permanent resident status to the "Black Hebrews," a community of black Americans, some of whom have been in the country since 1969, the Interior Ministry said Monday.

The government granted the new status to the group of about 2,000 American citizens, who followed Chicago bus driver Ben Ami Carter (search) to the southern Israeli desert town of Dimona in the belief that they are descended from the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

Favoring stark black robes with elaborate inlaid designs, Black Hebrews (search) constitute one of Israel's most unusual groups. They practice polygamy, shun birth control, and refrain from eating meat, dairy products, eggs and sugar.

As permanent residents, the Black Hebrews will be able to serve in the Israeli army and establish their own residential communities, an Interior Ministry statement said.

The statement said that the decision on the Black Hebrews' new status was made by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, after the recommendation of a committee established in the late 1990s.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Tova Ellinson said that under normal ministry practice, permanent resident status would lead to full citizenship after an unspecified period of time.

Many of the Black Hebrews entered Israel as tourists and were in the country illegally until the Interior Ministry granted them temporary residency in 1992.

Up to now, a succession of Israeli interior ministers had resisted upgrading the Black Hebrews' status of temporary residents, with limited legal and civil rights.

Usually affiliated with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, the ministers were influenced by Israel's chief rabbinate, which ruled that the Black Hebrews were not Jews and could not be accorded automatic citizenship under the country's "Law of Return (search)," which gives citizenship to almost any Jew who requests it.