Staff Sgt. Tamir Nevuani was the first Druze fighter to serve in Sayeret Matkal, the general staff’s elite special-operations force. When he fell on January 1, 2008, during operational activity in the Negev, he also became the unit’s first Druze fallen soldier.
“It isn’t often that the younger brother is the inspiration to the older brothers,” recalls his brother, Nizar, a career soldier in a classified unit, and one can hear the emotion in his voice. “He didn’t give details about what they were doing, but about the experience itself – the challenge, where he failed, where he succeeded, where he had surprised himself. All these things would happen once every week or two weeks, when he came home. It was like someone waiting to hear from his love what’s going on with her. That’s what it became, out of great respect and love and admiration.”
Tamir, his brother said, was a self-made person who “easily” became the first Druze fighter in the elite unit, even though nothing in his background had greased the way.
“Our mother was a housewife,” he said. “Father was the breadwinner. He was a schoolteacher. The pay wasn’t great.” Nizar described Tamir as “very shy” throughout his childhood. “People would tease him about it in school,” he recalled.
“In 10th grade he wanted to attend Command Military Academy in Haifa, which meant also attending the Reali School,” Nizar said. “He did a workshop or a series of courses about studies and the military. They picked five out of 200 people. He got the highest score on the military section but was one of the lowest in the academic part. So they made a deal that he would study for a month and take tests. He did it like a big boy and succeeded. He met any challenge he took upon himself.”
Like Nizar Nevuani, Lt. Col Motia Dagesh is an army officer, who serves as a construction unit commander in the Central Command. Like Nizar, he is also Druze, and like Nizar, he also lost his brother.
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Dr. Mahar Dagesh was a physician with the rank of captain when he fell in the Shayetet 13 disaster in Lebanon in 1997, accompanying the naval commando force that was ambushed by Hezbollah. He was 27 when he died, along with 11 other fighters.
“I was 13 when he was killed,” recalled Motia Dagesh. “The oldest brother is like a role model that you live for. You view him as a second father, your trailblazer. I don’t talk about it a lot. I remember many things more related to values and a way of life. Some specific things do come back to me, like days when he would come back from his studies. We would be waiting for him, my two brothers and I, near the door. He was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Just to hold him, to smell him, to understand his experiences. He would always bring something like that with him, every week or two. It’s etched in my mind.”
Dagesh said that Mahar saved another soldier in his own death. “He took a bullet amid a heroic effort to save people,” he said. “He fell on one of the fighters when he was in the middle of treating him. That guy is still alive today.”
As in every family, the losses scarred both families deeply. But both Nevuani and Dagesh described an acceptance of the loss that they say characterizes the Druze religious approach. When Dagesh was asked about how the family felt when they learned that the Hezbollah ambush was located there in part because the enemy had succeeded in intercepting messages that hadn’t been encrypted properly, he deflected the question.
“I’m not sure how much you’ve been previously exposed to the Druze community,” he said. “Of course we want to know all the information, but on the other hand, when God decides to take a soul, other things are shunted aside.”
He said the circumstances are peripheral. “It’s important for us to know, but it’s not the main thing,” he said. “The main thing is that was Mahar’s fate. He was cut down, and indeed it’s painful every day." He stressed that “stories and investigations” don’t “change the picture.”
Nevuani spoke of a similar approach toward bereavement. According to custom and religion, “a lot of what happens regarding death and birth comes from above,” he said. “I, as someone who considers himself educated, allow this to myself and grasp onto it with all my might. The belief that it’s ‘maktub,’ that it’s predetermined, helps.”
He said there is no concept of a memorial service within the Druze religion. “The body doesn’t interest us,” he noted. “But for us, for the siblings and friends, every year during the week of the date he fell, we go to the area of the battle where he fell. Sometimes we spend the night there, or we just hike there. And of course there is Memorial Day, when our parents’ home and the cemetery are filled with friends. We also hold an annual navigation run in his memory, on his birthday at the end of May.”
Dagesh and Nevuani recounted, separately, the small comfort they take in the pride their brothers brought to their community and their families, and that their deaths made on impression on young people. “The Shayetet [naval commandoes] wasn’t well known, along with other units, in ’97,” Dagesh said. “It exposed a lot of people to […] units they could join. It took a lot of young people to places that are really good for the army.”
Nizar Nevuani said the whole family took “incredible pride” in the fact that his brother was the first Druze soldier in Sayeret Matkal. “It was very exciting and fun, not necessarily from the perspective of the community, but from your own perspective, that you’ve succeeded in breaking some barrier,” he said. “It’s not just because you’re first; it would be no less amazing if you were the fourth. But I guess that the first will always have some aura.”
Neither was particularly eager to discuss whether the nation-state law, which seemingly diminishes the status of the Druze community in Israel, has reduced their sense of belonging.
“I would prefer to leave that question aside,” said Nevuani. “I would be happy to address it in another context, not in the context of my family. It raises a lot of questions, a lot of discussions, a lot of wondering – a lot of things. Everyone has his own opinion, but there aren’t too many different opinions, let’s put it that way. Within the family, Mom and Dad are simple people. They get up every day, and organize weddings and food for weddings; they do this without paying attention to profits because people’s happiness is what interests them. These things just go past them. Younger people might have more interest in such things. Let’s leave it aside.”
Dagesh answered similarly. “Let’s separate between two things,” he said. “There’s politics and there’s real life. Sometimes the political situation is better or worse, but do they have a dramatic impact? I don’t think so. That’s because the foundation is stronger than the impact of one or two incidents that happen any given year. We are talking about a foundation of more than 71 years. The foundation of the community makes us an inseparable part of the state. That’s why I think that fluctuations to the right and left will continue to happen, but I don’t feel it much in daily life.”