Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the death of Palmach fighter Shmuel Arava, who fell during the War of Independence in 1948. Many Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza, which was then under Egyptian control, but Arava is apparently the only Israeli casualty from that time whose remains are still there.
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Evidence suggests Arava was very likely buried in the Gaza Strip by Arabs, alongside Egyptian soldiers who were killed in the same battle in which he fell. His family believes he might have been mistakenly identified as an Arab because he was Yemenite.
Over the years, the Israel Defense Forces has tried to ascertain what happened to Arava, and its MIA Accounting Unit (Eitan) has invested much time and resources in the effort. But even though Israel controlled Gaza for several decades, his remains were never found.
Even now, 70 years after his death, he is classified as a fallen soldier whose burial place is unknown.
“Shmuel is the hero of the family. It’s inconceivable that he was left in Gaza,” said Shmuel’s cousin, Sasson Arava, at his home in Moshav Hodaya, near Ashkelon, this week. “We dearly want for him to be buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem,” he added.
Other relatives say they have lost hope of ever seeing Shmuel’s remains being brought to Israel for burial.
Family members say Arava was born in 1932 in the city of Ibb, Yemen, to a family with many children. The family made aliyah when he was very young and settled in the Nahliel neighborhood of Hadera. Later, the family moved to Kfar Ya’abetz in the Sharon region.
Before the War of Independence, the village used to come under attack from its Arab neighbors. Shmuel, by then a teenager, pitched in to defend the village and left an impression on the residents there. “At just 16 he showed amazing knowledge of how to use all the different weapons,” villager Tuvia Masawri wrote, describing Shmuel as “tall and strong, brave and warm. We grew up in the light of his heroism.”
When the War of Independence began and the villagers were evacuated to Moshav Geulei Teiman, near Hadera, Arava sought to fight “somewhere really dangerous” and joined the 2nd Battalion of the Negev Brigade.
On May 14, 1948, the day when David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the state, Arava boarded a convoy that was traveling to bring supplies to Kfar Darom, which had been established two years earlier as one of the “11 settlement points” in the northern Negev. In an Egyptian assault on the convoy, he was the sole Israeli casualty.
“People from the army came and told the family that Shmuel had been killed,” recalled Sasson, who was 9 at the time. “His mother, Naomi, who was pregnant, burst into tears and soon went into labor. She called the baby Shmuel, after her fallen son.”
The family later learned that Shmuel’s body had been left behind.
The name of Shmuel Arava, who was 17 when he fell, was later inscribed on several memorial monuments, including the Garden of the Missing in Action at Mount Herzl; the Negev Brigade monument in Be’er Sheva (designed by Dani Karavan); and the monument in Moshav Geulei Teiman.
Shmuel was not the only member of the Arava family to be killed in the War of Independence. Just two weeks after his death, the family was informed that another family member, Shalom Arava, had been killed at Latrun.
In the years after Shmuel Arava's death, the IDF made a number of attempts to locate his place of burial. Arab residents of Gaza were questioned and testimony was taken from soldiers who served alongside Arava when he fell, and also from senior officers who served in the War of Independence. The efforts also included reviewing old documents in the IDF archives, and an appeal to the Red Cross. The efforts also continued after the conquest of Gaza in the Six-Day War in 1967, but no answers were found.
The commander of Shmuel’s platoon said that when the battle ended, they “saw that Shmuel Arava was missing. After questioning everyone, we found that no one had seen if he was hit, or where.”
The commander also testified that about a month later, during the first pause in fighting, the Egyptians reported: “We found the dead soldier in the area of the battle, and we gave him an honorable burial.”
Similar testimony was collected from other sources, and suggested several potential locations within the Gaza Strip where Arava might be buried.
One piece of testimony was told to historian Aryeh Yitzhaki by Arab residents of Gaza. Yitzhaki told Haaretz this week: “In the course of my investigation, I found the man who had buried the Arab casualties from the battle. He told a story about a ‘strange corpse’ that was dressed in a singlet and underwear. It was an unusual sight, because the Arabs at the time didn’t wear undergarments.” Yitzhaki mentioned this 10 years ago in his (Hebrew) book “The 222 Days of Kfar Darom.”
“I’m 100 percent sure he is buried there with the Muslim Egyptian soldiers,” said Yitzhaki. “I know the specific place that was spoken about. I don’t think there would be any technical difficulty in extracting his remains and solving this problem.”
Yitzhaki said he obtained information about Arava’s burial place a year after the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. “It’s too bad. If I would have known about it before that, I would have gone there and done the excavation myself.”
Sasson Arava is also frustrated he didn’t know sooner that his cousin is likely buried in Gaza. “We could have easily taken care of this, if the information is really correct,” he said this week. “Israel was in Kfar Darom for decades. We could have left no stone unturned. We could have bribed people there to tell us where and what.”
He also cites the operation to locate the remains of Jewish spy Avshalom Feinberg, whose skeleton was ultimately found south of Rafah and then brought back for burial following the Six-Day War (he had died in 1917).
Other testimonies collected over the years said Arava’s body was returned to Israel by the Egyptians and buried either in Rehovot or Be’er Sheva. But the IDF has never been able to corroborate this information.
A few years ago, the family’s hopes were renewed when the IDF asked them to provide DNA samples. But since then there have been no new breakthroughs. “We don’t know anything,” said Sasson Arava. “We have no idea where things stand at this point.”
Sasson himself was given a citation for his actions in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. “I gave everything I had to bring back the body of my officer who was killed, not to leave him in the field,” he said. “I expect the same to be done for my cousin.”
The IDF Spokesperson's Office said its investigation into Shmuel Arava's whereabouts is still ongoing. "The IDF will continue to examine every way the investigation goes, and do everything in its power to locate his body and bring it back to Israel for burial." Arava is one of 179 IDF soldiers missing in action.
"The IDF is doing a great deal in order to extract every piece of information about these cases, and is conducting a large number of investigations to locate missing persons." As a result, it added, 23 fallen soldiers' bodies have been located and given burials in Israel in the past six years.