After 10 months living with their loved one’s fate a mystery, the family of Avraham (Avera) Mengistu asked the public to show restraint on Thursday. The family’s call came hours after a gag order was lifted on the 28-year-old’s disappearance after he crossed the border into Gaza last year.
Ilan Mengistu, Avraham’s brother, said his family “has decided to behave with restraint, and give the government time to get our brother back home,” adding that the family “ask the people of Israel to show restraint.”
Standing with his father, Ayele, and mother, Agernesh, Ilan said the family considers the situation “a humanitarian issue,” calling on the international community “to get involved and work to secure the release of my brother.”
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He implored “that Hamas consider the condition of my brother and release him.”
Following the plea, the family exited the press scrum into their apartment without giving further comment. For the past 10 months, the family has kept quiet by Israeli government request, helping to keep the story out of the press and unknown to most Israelis. A gag order on the story resulted in a total media blackout.
In the crumbling apartment blocks of the Ben-Azai neighborhood of Ashkelon, however, the story might already be old news.
Tzahi Malasa, a relative of Mengistu, said that he’d known that Avera was in Gaza as little as two weeks after he had gone missing. He said that initially they had been looking in Dimona and Beersheba and other places where friends and acquaintances said Avera might be, before they learned he was believed to be in Gaza.
“If he’s in Gaza, I blame the army. They saw him climbing the fence, they should have shot him in the legs and stopped him,” said Malasa.
Pointing an accusatory finger at the media congregated outside the family home, he asked “where were you the past 10 months? Where was everyone? They shut us up and kept us quiet, but if they don’t know where he is, they need to tell us.”
Sivan – a neighbor who asked that her real name not be used – said she and a friend both knew about the story months before it went public on Thursday, as did a few other neighbors who spoke to The Jerusalem Post.
When asked how the story had stayed under wraps while neighborhood residents were speaking about it openly, they said that rumors had circulated widely on Facebook and WhatsApp as well as on a few websites outside of Israel, but nothing beyond that.
No one in the neighborhood could recall having seen security officials visiting the missing Ethiopian-Israeli’s residence at any point in the past 10 months. Sivan and her friend were standing in the stairwell of the building next to the Mengistu family home, on a cul-de-sac at the end of Ben-Azai Street, which by then had filled with a few dozen reporters and cameramen waiting for the family to emerge and make a statement.
Sivan said she wouldn’t say for sure that the case represents racism or unfair treatment of Ethiopian Israelis, but added “it does make you ask questions... [it] makes you ask if it wasn’t an Ethiopian would it be different?” The perceived racism was on the minds of more than a few people in the neighborhood on Thursday. A few leading activists from the Ethiopian- Israeli community, who had been involved in protests against racism and police brutality in recent months, had gathered outside the family home, wearing shirts with Mengistu’s name followed by a question mark.
Avi Yalo said that a number of people had worn the shirts at the protests to – in his words – raise awareness and try to get the media to apply pressure and get the story out.
Wearing an “Avraham Mengistu shirt,” Yalo said that he and others in the community have known about the story for months and that “no one has given any answers to the family. The whole story has been shut up in the press.”
When asked if he thinks the story has been kept quiet because Mengistu is black, he responded, “It could be,” but said he couldn’t be sure.
He added, however, “We can understand the considerations of the state and that they can be very complex, but all the family wants is for their son to come home.”
A prominent member of the recent anti-racism protests by Ethiopian Israelis wrote on Facebook that she had spoken with the Mengistu family and that they had asked “not to do anything for now. They want peace and quiet for now and asked not to link the story to racism.”