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Men crowded into the Julis community center to comfort the male relatives. One street away, at the bereaved family's house, the women congregated. All were mourning Tamir Nabuani, 19, who died Tuesday during an army navigation exercise.

Friends and relatives described him as both ambitious and introverted.

They recalled how only two weeks ago, when Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi came to call, did they learn that Nabuani was the first Druze accepted into the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. Other Druze had started the Sayeret course, but dropped out before finishing.

"I knew that my son was in an elite unit. But only when the chief of staff came, and people began to ask me about my son, did I discover this," said his father, Nawaf.

"Anyone who knew that Tamir was in the Sayeret, it wasn't because he told them, but because the army spoke about him," agreed R., Nabuani's cousin. "He was modest."

"As the first Druze slated to finish the Sayeret course, he was the hope of the village and the entire community," R. added.

Nabuani was the fourth of five brothers; he also had a sister. His two eldest brothers are army officers, one in the Nahal Brigade and one in the ordnance corps; another, who is currently abroad, served in the Druze Battalion.

Nabuani began his army service in August 2006, after finishing high school at the Reali military academy in Haifa. "He studied with us for seven years. He had enormous motivation. He wasn't afraid of anything; whatever he wanted, he did," said one of his fellow students, today a paratrooper. "He had blue cat's eyes. But in truth, he was more a tiger than a cat."

Fifteen-year-old Salman, Nabuani's youngest brother, related a conversation that they had a few weeks ago that encapsulated Nabuani's approach to life.

"We spoke about the army and I asked him where I should serve. He responded with one sentence: 'Always aim for the highest and the hardest. Start from the top.'"

Nizar, another brother, related that Nabuani underwent two operations after he was drafted but he did not let that keep him from Sayeret Matkal.

The Nabuanis are one of the largest clans in Julis, and according to R., many of its sons serve in elite army units. "Today, the trend among the young is to be in the most select [units]," he said.

And indeed, Druze have served in many top units, including Shaldag (the Air Force commandos) and Shayetet (the naval commandos).

Julis Mayor Nadim Amar said that draft evasion is unknown in his town. The draft rate is 86 percent, and most of the rest have exemptions for religious or university studies. "There is high motivation and even competition over elite units," he said. "I just wish the same were true of university studies."

Amar said that this high motivation to serve, despite the Druze community's feeling that the government discriminates against them, sometimes puzzles him. However, he said, he believes it stems from "the Druze belief that we belong to this place, and we need to fight for this place."