For months rumors have circulated that Hamas has held two Israeli citizens and the remains of two soldiers captive in the Gaza Strip for almost a year. Following a motion filed by the Israeli daily Haaretz, a gag order concealing the cases was lifted yesterday prompting Israeli officials to addressed the matter publicly for the first time. Israel confirmed Ethiopian-Israeli Avraham Mengitsu, 28, and one other are detained in Gaza, along with the bodies of two soldier killed during the summer war.
Israeli officials said they have been aware of Mengitsu’s confinement since he first “crossed” into Gaza, on his own volition, by climbing over a fence the runs along the southern border on September 7, 2014.
A second Israeli citizen has also been held in Gaza since April, a Bedouin citizen of Israel who accessed the besieged Mediterranean strip through the northern crossing at Erez. His father told Haaretz today that his son is mentally ill and that he was unaware he had entered Gaza.
“I have no idea where my son is, nobody told me he’s in Gaza and I don’t know if he’s there or not,” said the father who explained his son was known for wandering around their village, and into the occupied Palestinian territory (both the West Bank and Gaza) where Israeli authorities undertook coordinating his return home. The man’s identity has not been disclosed and is still under gag order.
“This is a painful situation which I, together with the relevant officials at the President’s Office, have been following closely since it began. I am in contact with the Mengistu family and I know that all the relevant authorities have been working tirelessly, and monitoring the issue closely, from the moment Avraham crossed over the fence. This is a humanitarian issue, and we expect those holding him to behave accordingly and return him in good health. According to the information which has arisen, Mengistu is being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. We will continue to make every effort in order to bring an end to this incident, as soon as possible,” President Reuven Rivlin said.
“Yesterday I spoke with the parents and siblings of Avraham Mengistu and I told them that from as soon as the incident became known we have spared no effort to return him to Israel. We agreed to meet soon,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Israel is not treating Mengistu’s captivity as a kidnapping, though he “is being held against his will by Hamas in Gaza,” Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said. The area where he entered Gaza is heavily monitored. At the time he crossed, Israeli soldiers beckoned Mengistu to come back (he didn’t), reported the The Jerusalem Post.
Little is known on exactly why Mengistu chose to enter Gaza. Israeli media is reporting that Mengistu is mentally ill for entering the Palestinian territory. Journalist Gershon Baskin said officials in Gaza also alleged Mengistu suffers from mental illness, yet he has a different theory on Mengistu’s current whereabouts, based his weekly conversations with Hamas leaders over the past six months: Mengistu could be in Egypt.
Baskin was involved in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas and still retains close ties to sources in Hamas.
“Hamas told me that [Mengistu] crossed into Gaza, was arrested and then interrogated by the police and the military wing,” then, “They determined that he was not mentally stable, and decided to return him to Israel. He refused to go back to Israel and was released in Gaza.”
Baskin’s Hamas contacts added that they did not track Mengistu’s movements once set free within the borders of the Gaza strip. They raised the possibility that Mengistu left for Egypt, clandestinely traveling through a tunnel that runs under the border. “I don’t know the truth, I just believe that if Hamas was holding on to him, they wouldn’t deny it,” said Baskin, “They would use him as a bargaining chip.”
Indeed Hamas has suggested for months that it is holding onto at least one unidentified captured Israeli. Hamas posted an advertisement in Gaza with an image of a question mark over the outline of a man held behind bars, reported journalist Richard Silverstein who published an image of the billboard over one month before the gag order was lifted. Although some of the biographical details in his coverage, like Mengistu’s age (Silverstein said the missing soldier was 24) are inconsistent with the information the government released today.
Silverstein also dispatched an unnamed colleague last month to interview Mengistu’s father, Aylin Mengistu. “He was saddened and frustrated by the experience. He’d almost lost all hope,” he wrote.
Using stronger language today in an interview with Haaretz, Mengistu’s family said Israel is not giving their relative enough attention or pressuring Hamas because of racial bias.
“It’s more than racism – I call it ‘anti-Blackism,’” Yalo Mengistu, the detained’s brother, told Haaretz. “I am one million percent certain that if he were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”
The Mengistu family added that in the early months a Knesset member only reached out to them after they contacted her first on Facebook. They also said security officials told them to keep their son’s disappearance a secret. Previous Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose job it would have been to coordinate Mengistu’s release after his abduction, distanced himself today claiming to have no knowledge of the event.
By comparison in 2006 when Hamas took into custody Israeli solider Gilad Shalit and held him for five years, Shalit’s parents vocally advocated for their son’s release, prompting an international campaign to release the solider. Hamas too behaved differently. Rather than employing quiet pictorial references, the Islamic movement repeatedly publicized evidence that Shalit was alive. They eagerly sought to use him as a bargaining chip in a prisoner exchange. The abduction culminated in a massive prisoner deal in 2011 where over 1,000 Palestinians were released. Since the wave of releases 60 Palestinian prisoners freed have been rearrested, the latest occurring today near Jerusalem. Israelis have widely protested the prisoner deal, and Palestinians have criticized it a waste of leverage, citing many inmates had nearly completed their sentences anyways.
There is also no indication that talks are talking place now to release Mengistu, like during the Shalit affair. Hamas claims no negotiations have started with Israel, an unnamed “negotiator” who spoke to Hamas told the Times of Israel. Separately Hamas’s Hassan Yussef told Arabic media today that Israel should first free the 60 Palestinian prisoners who were released in the 2011 deal and then rearrested, before it will open a dialogue–contradicting other Hamas officials who denied all together that it is holding the Israelis.
While the Mengistu family has not confirmed if they have received any proof of life, or communication from Hamas, there is a possibility that an independent third party has already begun to broker channels of communication.
Hamas political bureau spokesperson Khaled Mashaal said today Israel has already solicited support from a European mediator. As a matter of policy Israel and Hamas do not have formal diplomatic conversations and must use an outside interlocker.
“A key part of our role in any conflict is to try and ensure families have contact with their families to ensure the safety of their relatives,” spokesperson for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) Krista Armstrong said to Mondoweiss. While Armstrong noted the ICRC exercisers a 50-year confidentiality term for all cases where they seek to establish communication between detained persons and their relatives in conflict zones, she indicated it would be within her organization’s purview to handle cases like those of the two captive Israelis–if requested.
The ICRC has personnel and resources in Gaza, more importantly, it has experience in ensuring families “can find out the whereabouts of their relatives and restore contact,” she said.
Correction: This article originally stated Avraham Mengistu was a former Israeli Defense Forces soldier. He reportedly was turn away from mandatory draft service for “unspecified mental issues,” according to the Times of Israel.