Two Israelis Held By Hamas Since September

Family members of Avraham Mengistu appeal to Hamas to allow him to return home safely, Thursday at a press conference in Ashkelon. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Family members of Avraham Mengistu appeal to Hamas to allow him to return home safely, Thursday at a press conference in Ashkelon. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Camp): one of the few who knew about Avraham Mengistu’s case. (Flash 90)
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Camp): one of the few who knew about Avraham Mengistu’s case. (Flash 90)

Israel revealed on Thursday that two of its citizens have been held in Hamas hands in Gaza since last September, after a gag order was lifted by the military censor.

“We are working for the return of the two Israelis who crossed the border into Gaza,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, confirming their captivity. “We hold Hamas responsible for their safety.”

Israel’s defense ministry identified one of those held as Avraham Mengisto, 26, an Israeli of Ethiopian origin. The other is an Israeli Arab who was not named.

The ministry said it believed Mengisto, a resident of Ashkelon, had crossed into the coastal territory on foot on Sept. 7, 2014. It gave no details on how or when the Israeli Arab had entered the territory.

“Yesterday I spoke with the parents and siblings of Avraham Mengistu and I told them that … we have spared no effort to return him to Israel,” Netanyahu said, adding that he expected the international community to “issue a clear call” for the men’s release.

Mengisto’s brother, Ilan, said Avraham was unwell and needed help. In an emotional plea outside the family’s apartment in Ashkelon, he called on Hamas to consider his brother’s medical condition and “release him immediately.”

“This is a distressing humanitarian case because my brother is not well,” he said. “I ask the Israeli government to bring him home safely and call on the international community to intervene and to bring its influence to bear for his release.”

The IDF said that “according to credible intelligence,” Mengistu is being held “against his will” by Hamas. “Israel has appealed [to] international and regional interlocutors to demand his immediate release and verify his well-being.”

Hamas would neither confirm nor deny their alleged role in the disappearances.

Israel had kept the matter quiet for close to a year, hoping that their release could be secured through behind-the-scenes diplomacy, according to senior officials.

Although it immediately calls to mind the kidnappings of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and more recently the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Hy”d, there are differences in the circumstances of the current case which offer hope for a more positive outcome. Unlike those previous cases, this time the captives were not abducted by violence, and the news comes amid reports that Israel and Hamas are engaged in talks through a European intermediary.

No official explanation was given for the reason behind the timing of the disclosure on Thursday.

However, The Associated Press  suggested that it may have been prompted by an admission from Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, to the London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper late Tuesday that Israel had asked Hamas to release “two soldiers and two bodies.”

The latter were already known to be IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed in the Gaza war last summer. But until Thursday the existence of two others in the hands of the terror organization had not been public knowledge.

The public was not alone in this. It emerged that government officials presumably in line to receive such information did not.

The Security Cabinet, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and its confidential subcommittees were kept in the dark along with everyone else, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who was foreign minister and a member of the Security Cabinet back in September until the elections in March, told the media that he was surprised to find out about it on Thursday.

“We were never told,” said MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Camp), a member of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, which is responsible for oversight of captivity issues.

Shai was sharply critical of the government’s handling of the case.

“The government intentionally hid information from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Security Cabinet that they were required to provide, they delayed giving information to the families and dealt with them slowly and negligently,” Shai said.

MK Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), who was an observer in the Security Cabinet in the last government, told Army Radio he first heard about Mengistu from Pnina Tamano-Shata, who was a Yesh Atid MK at the time.

Tamano-Shata declined to comment.

The current Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) also said he had no knowledge of the affair until it was made public on Thursday. In a radio interview he said that he has only been in his position for a month and a half, but assumed that the appropriate subcommittees knew about it.

However, there were exceptions. MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Camp) was aware of the situation, and took an active role in communicating with the Mengistu family.

Currently a member of the Subcommittee on Intelligence who sat in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the last Knesset, as well, said, “I was in touch [with the Mengistu family] and contacted negotiators and security sources who were involved, and I tried to help outside the framework of the Committee,” Bar-Lev said.

Bar-Lev said he was told that it must be dealt with secretly, lest publicity lead Hamas to demand more prisoners in return for him and the bodies of IDF soldiers.

“I tried to explain to the family that he would come home faster and at a lower price if things were kept quiet,” he said.

Bar-Lev took the decision to go public as a worrying sign.

“I’m concerned that the reason this came out now is not an optimistic one, that it means we don’t really know where they are, who has them and what their situation is,” Bar-Lev said. “Maybe they have no idea and said okay, we tried keeping it quiet, now we’ll publicize it and maybe someone, like a private person in Gaza, will say he knows something.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also knew about Mengistu from Ethiopian-Israeli activists, and discussed it in his regular meetings with Netanyahu, in which he is briefed on diplomatic and security issues. Herzog has asked European officials visiting Israel in recent months to assist in bringing Mengistu’s release.

“This is a complex and painful humanitarian matter. I am committed to solving it through all relevant factors,” Herzog said.

Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni visited the Mengistu home in the southern city on Thursday after the news was out.

“The family is going through a very difficult time, after the double tragedy that they endured,” Shimoni said. “Askelon Municipality’s social services department has been accompanying them since the first moment.”

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