A group of youngsters stood at the entrance to the village of Arara in Wadi Ara yesterday morning, talking to one another. Asked where the funeral of Sgt. Sa'id Jahada was taking place, one replied: "We don't know; go into the village and ask there," and he smiled knowingly at his friends.

It was clear they knew exactly who the soldier was and where his family lived, but preferred not to say. A short way from there, two men in their 30s were more helpful. "I'll show you the way," one said, "but there won't be many people there. The residents are boycotting them."

The Jahada family lives on the slope of a hill, overlooking breathtaking scenery. It was still early and only the family and close friends were in the house. Sa'id's eldest brother, Hussam, was standing outside to receive the mourners and direct them to his father, Youssef, who sat stone-faced, discussing funeral arrangements with a friend.

Sa'id enlisted in the IDF a year ago, a few months after his twin brother, Walid, and both of them served in the desert reconnaissance unit, known as the Beduin reconnaissance unit. Another brother, 21-year-old Hisham, enlisted in the Border Police three years ago. Walid served in the outpost on the Philadelphi Route for a few months, and when he was transfered to another base near Haifa, Sa'id took his place. His father said Sa'id had hoped to advance in the ranks and sign on for the permanent army.

Youssef was sitting and watching the news on TV on Sunday night around 7. "They spoke about the explosion at the outpost and I immediately telephoned Sa'id but he didn't answer. I had a bad feeling then, and some two hours later, officers and soldiers arrived at our door and my worst fears came true," he said.

"It was terribly difficult but we Muslims believe in fate, and it could have happened even if he was serving close to home or in another place. I pray that my son will be the last victim because no one wants war and bloodshed. We are all praying for peace."

Youssef is a controversial figure in the village since he has three sons in the IDF and the Border Police. For that reason, most of the 12,000 villagers did not participate in the funeral.

"I am aware that people will boycott the funeral because my son was killed in the army, but I and my children have many friends inside and outside the village and we don't feel ostracized," he said. "My boys chose to serve in the IDF of their own free will."

Youssef said that they had received anonymous threatening letters but he also knew there were many people who sympathized with him but feared to speak out.

A family friend sitting next to him interrupted. "I am one of those pushing for more youngsters from the Wadi Ara area to enlist in the army," he said, "out of the belief that it will help us as residents of the area. After the events of October 2000, everyone saw Wadi Ara as a dangerous place, like south Lebanon or Gaza. There was a kind of boycott of the villages here. It is important to remove this stigma and send a message to the government and citizens of Israel that there are loyal people in Wadi Ara, who are prepared to serve in the army and contribute to the country. True, there are difficulties and fears and social and political pressures and sometimes threats - see, I'm talking anonymously - but we have to start the process."

He said he was supporting the Jahada family and 14 others who had sons in the army, and that he felt the number would grow. "Because of the events of 2000, many youth found themselves without work and a secure future and saw enlistment as a chance to build a future, and therefore it is important that the country pay back those who serve because the soldiers who have been demobilized feel they gained nothing and their service did not help them. We will talk to the defense minister and the president about it when they come to pay respects to the family of the first Wadi Ara soldier to fall on behalf of the IDF."

Dozens of villagers, many of them young, gathered in the family home at 2.30 P.M., closely scrutinizing the senior officers and soldiers who had come to pay their last respects. To the sound of passages from the Koran, the coffin, wrapped in the Israeli flag, was carried by a military jeep to the house.

Before it was brought inside, the family asked that it be wrapped in a blanket. The IDF rabbinate's representatives looked uneasy but some family members placed the coffin outside the house where a sheikh recited prayers from the Koran.

The only eulogy was delivered by Major General Elazar Stern, head of the manpower division in the IDF. "The falling of Sgt. Sa'id symbolizes the start of a new period between the IDF and the Jahada family, as well as the villagers of Arara," he said.