Hamas-captive Avera Mengistu’s father decried a “conspiracy of silence” surrounding his son’s whereabouts and status, at a conference on Monday meant to raise awareness about his plight.
Eilin Mengistu, who spoke to the Knesset panel through an interpreter, talked about the months he spent protesting outside the prime minister’s house, and decried the government’s perceived silence surrounding his son.
“I asked them for Avera’s bag, which was [found] after the incident,” he said. “The bag still had clothes; the bag looked bad because they fired upon [Avera], warning shots... There is a ‘conspiracy of silence’ with Israel’s security forces” regarding Avera’s disappearance.
“I ask, why don’t they tell us the whole story, everything that happened there... I ask from you, from the public and from the government, to help me” with the effort to free Avera and other captive Israelis, he said.
Mengistu, an Ethiopian-Israeli who lived in Ashkelon and is said to suffer from mental instability, was captured by Hamas after walking across the Gazan border, and Hamas has not released any information regarding his whereabouts or well-being since he went missing. The IDF has released video footage of Mengistu crossing the border, which was played at the conference.
MK Hilik Bar (Zionist Union) organized the conference, which was attended by members of the Mengistu family, MKs from other factions, and representatives from international organizations such as J Street, AIPAC, the UN, the American Jewish Congress, Human Rights Watch and the Anti-Defamation League.
He opened the conference by raising the possibility that Mengistu’s case has often been ignored by the public and by the government because of racism.
“How would the state have treated him, and how would he have been treated within Israeli society... if Avera’s name was different, maybe if his color was different,” he said.
Ilana Dayan, host of investigative journalism TV program Uvda, said the disappearance could have been prevented if society and those treating him had been able to help him earlier.
“Every time there was an opportunity for Israeli society to help [Avera],” she said, society failed him, “during all the years Avera grew up within it.”
She also contrasted Mengistu’s case with Gilad Schalit, the former soldier who was held captive by Hamas for five years until Israel and Hamas conducted a prisoner swap, saying while public “sentiment” succeeded for Schalit’s case, it has not yet succeeded for Mengistu’s.
MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) said the government can follow one of “two directions” in the efforts to free captive citizens.
The government and public could fight and negotiate publicly, which Kara said he believes would come at a great price, or they could be more discreet.
“I can say that discreet work helps more [in these cases],” he said.
Some of the other members of Knesset, including Bar, challenged Kara on this, saying that at least the family, if not the general public, deserves more information about Mengistu’s whereabouts. Kara remained resolute, while acknowledging that the situation pains him.
The IDF observer who was on duty in the area where Mengistu disappeared, who identified herself only as “Shirley,” said she “will not forget that day,” and that soldiers had called to Mengistu, who had not answered. She said she still has not put the events of the day behind her.
MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) said enough time has passed since Mengistu went missing, and that the time has come to fully investigate what happened to him.
Everyone should know “that the fate of an Israeli citizen should not be dependent on his skin color, not from his [socioeconomic] group,” and not based on simple public appeal; that the effort to return Mengistu home should be like the effort to return any other Israeli home.
To Mengistu’s family in attendance, Zandberg said, “We are at your service.”
During Zandberg’s remarks, an unidentified audience member wearing a shirt that said “Ve’ahavta Le’Avera Kamocha” (“And you shall love Avera like yourself,” a play on the verse in Leviticus “And you shall love your neighbor like yourself”) interrupted to demand that the public find out the price and time of Mengistu’s return. After some back and forth between him and the conference members, the audience member stormed out of the room.
David Meidan, a former Mossad official who was involved with the prisoner exchange that led to Schalit’s release, said those engaged with the Mengistu case need to push the government to come to a solution, and that negotiations with Hamas could become exceedingly difficult.
Only the Egyptians can influence Hamas, he said, “not Qatar, not Turkey, not Iran, not the Arab nations, not Europe, not the United States, not Trump – no one can influence Hamas,” Meidan said, “except the Egyptians.”
He said Egypt would have to be motivated into a position where they would pressure Hamas, and that while “paying prices is difficult,” Israel should be ready for the price Hamas might demand, and should try first, through the Egyptians, to get a sign that Mengistu is still alive.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post after the conference, Bar said the conference was meant “to raise the awareness, to let people know who is Avera Mengistu and what’s his story, what [his] family is demanding.” He also highlighted the dual effort to place pressure both internally on the Israeli government, to galvanize the effort to bring back Mengistu, and externally on international organizations to gain more information and to publicize Mengistu’s situation.
“We know that [members of the government] are doing [something], we know they cannot do everything, [but] the family is not getting enough information, almost no information at all,” Bar said. “So we want to have a public awareness [of the case]; we want the Israeli public, the Israeli people, to demand to see Avera Mengistu home; or at least to see a genuine and real effort that is done by the government, in order to get more information to tell us if he’s alive or not, what is his medical condition, and to demand a negotiation with Hamas, or to say an alternative to it.”
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