A few months ago, when the city of Tiberias decided to construct a memorial site in honor of former minister and IDF general Rehavam Ze’evi, historian and guide Dr. Shimon Gat was incensed. “There are other people whose names are more appropriate to commemorate in Tiberias,” he wrote at the time in an email to Haaretz.
Among the forgotten heroes of Tiberias whom Gat named, the story of Yaakov Fadida stands out. Fadida fell in the War of Independence at age 15 and his remarkable story has never been widely told.
“This youth is worthy of being commemorated in [Tiberias], but except for his family, no one remembers his deeds,” says Gat. “This young man, who volunteered to fight despite his young age, initiated actions no less noteworthy than the famous stories of heroism from 1948, there was just no one to report to the public of his courage, initiative and deeds,” Gat says.
Yaakov, who was born in 1932 in Tiberias to Hannah and Machlouf Fadida, joined the ranks of the city's defenders when he served in a youth military training program while he was still in school. Then the war broke out in 1948.
“Despite his young age, he wandered around among the Arabs in order to gather information, and even performed guard duty,” states the Defense Ministry’s official Yizkor website for commemorating fallen soldiers.
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“He took advantage of the fact that he spoke fluent Arabic in order to move around the Arab area of the lower city and collect information on the activities of the Arab soldiers there,” says Gat.
Fadida’s family also tells of a few cases in which he managed to steal pistols from Arabs in Tiberias and hand them over to the Haganah, the pre-state paramilitary underground. “At the time, it was the biggest story in Tiberias,” says the Yizkor website.
Nahum Av, one of the commanders during the battle over Tiberias during the war, later recalled that at the beginning of the war, Fadida, who was only 14 at the time, came to him and asked to become a fighter. “Yaakov, who was short of stature, looked little for his age and so I rejected him immediately,” Av later said.
“He saw his older brothers taking part in operations to liberate Tiberias and wanted to be part of it,” says Yaakov's niece, Aviya Fadida Myers. “He was a small and skinny child, not one of the giants, and at first everyone told him he shouldn’t be there.”
But Fadida didn’t give up. After a day or two, he returned to try again. “He came back to me, pleaded, asked and explained that he was capable and knew how to use weapons like the big [boys],” Av recalls. “He said: ‘Try me, I’ll prove it to you.’” In an attempt to find a way out of letting the determined young man serve, Av told him he didn’t have a gun for him.
The next day Fadida came back with a pistol. “Since I heard you didn’t have enough guns on your hands, I laid an ambush at the entrance to the Arab neighborhood and when an armed Arab came by I surprised him, threatened him with a knife, and took his gun from him,” Fadida told Av. After Av took away his pistol, Fadida once again took a pistol from its Arab owner. “Having no choice, Yaakov was added to the group of fighters,” says Av.
Av described one of the heroic acts attributed to little Fadida as “saving a number of fighters from certain death.” This happened when an armored bus carrying equipment to a besieged position in the city ran over a landmine. The bus caught fire and Arab fighters began shooting at the occupants.
Fadida and his comrades were sitting in a nearby position and could see what was happening. The 15-year-old jumped at the chance and volunteered to help, says Av. He collected hand grenades from his fellow soldiers, climbed over the roofs of the nearby houses, approached the Arab positions, and began throwing grenades at them.
“A panic broke out among the Arabs, the shooting stopped, some of them were wounded and the rest abandoned their positions and fled for their lives,” Av recounts. “When the shooting stopped, Yaakov called on our guys to come out of the burning armored [bus] and directed them . . . The armored vehicle's commander followed the orders of their little savior, and that is how they were saved from certain death.”
On April 22, 1948, 70 years ago this month, Fadida was killed under circumstances that are still not completely understood during the battles over Tiberias. The Yizkor website says: “He fell under tragic circumstances from a bullet fired by mistake.”
The family suffered a double tragedy when his cousin, Yehiel Fadida, a solider in the Golani infantry brigade, was killed just a day later. The two cousins were buried side by side in the military cemetery in Tiberias.
Fadida was one of the youngest soldiers killed during the War of Independence. Younger than Fadida was 10-year-old Nissim Gini, who was killed in Jerusalem while serving as a lookout and courier. Gini entered the history books as the youngest of any soldier killed in Israel’s wars.
“There were a few other youths who fell in the War of Independence, but without a doubt, Fadida was the ultimate combat soldier, whose deeds are no less [significant] than those who received the Medal of Valor (Israel’s highest military decoration),” says Gat. “But his story was completely forgotten. Who’s heard of Yaakov Fadida?”
This week, as on every Memorial Day, the Fadida family will visit Yaakov’s grave and stand at attention and in silence when the nationwide siren is sounded. “Of course we remember him,” says his niece. “He was a young man who never managed to accomplish much in his life.”