Two Israeli civilians reportedly suffering mental health issues entered the Gaza Strip, at different times and on their own accord, and were held by Hamas against their will, authorities revealed on Thursday.
The news followed the lifting of a gag order that had prevented publication of the incidents until now.
On September 7, 2014, Avraham Mengistu, 29, from Ashkelon, crossed the security fence into the northern Gaza Strip, climbing over the barrier near the Mediterranean Coast. Soldiers who were summoned to the scene called on Mengistu to return to Israel, but he ignored them and continued into the Hamas-run enclave, according to senior Israeli officials. “According to credible intelligence, Mengistu is being held against his will by Hamas in Gaza,” said Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the IDF coordinator of government activities in the territories.
“Israel has appealed to international and regional interlocutors to demand his immediate release and verify his well-being,” Mordechai said. “Israel will continue to pursue the release and return of this citizen to Israel.”
Brother of missing Israeli to Hamas: 'Release him immediately, he is not healthy'
In a second case of an Israeli being held in Gaza, the defense establishment is seeking the return of a Beduin man who crossed the border on another occasion.
Security sources said on Thursday that they are working on the assumption that Mengistu is alive, although they conceded that his status is far from clear.
Israeli officials said Hamas has issued a claim according to which they interrogated Mengistu and then released him.
The defense establishment has rejected that as an attempt by Hamas to dodge responsibility for the man’s welfare.
A security source said Hamas’s claim is either a ploy in an effort to negotiate the release of Hamas prisoners, or an attempt to cover up an incident in which Mengistu was killed or severely injured.
The source said that the gag order was imposed in order to clarify what happened to Mengistu. The family has been in contact with the president, prime minister and defense minister, he said.
The family has received the same support given to that of a missing soldier, the source continued.
Two months ago, the Mengistu incident was reported in a Jordanian newspaper, but it was nevertheless decided to keep the gag order in place – something the source said the family wanted.
The source dismissed allegations that the incident was hushed up because of Mengistu’s Ethiopian descent.
Security sources said there was currently no contact with Hamas for Mengistu’s release, and that Hamas is denying that he is in their hands. One source said that if as a result of the publication of the matter Hamas will begin negotiations for his release, then that would be “significant progress.”
Hamas released Mengistu and thinks he left Gaza, Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon Baskin said on Thursday.
Baskin was involved in back-channel negotiations with Hamas for the 2011 release of soldier Gilad Schalit, and remains in contact with officials in the terrorist organization.
Baskin said that roughly six months ago, Ethiopian-Israeli activists told him about Mengistu’s disappearance and asked him to use his contacts to find out about his situation.
“Hamas told me that [Mengistu] crossed into Gaza, was arrested and then interrogated by the police and the military wing,” he said. “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.”
Hamas sources told Baskin that they did not keep track of Mengistu and they believe he went to Sinai via a tunnel and have no knowledge of where he is, as opposed to the Beduin Israeli, whom Hamas says it is holding captive.
The Hamas political level asked the Izzadin Kassam military wing and Hamas police to report on Mengistu’s whereabouts, which Baskin said indicated that someone thought the Israeli could be used as a bargaining chip, but all they know is that he is not in Gaza anymore.
Baskin said he calls his Hamas contacts about the matter almost every week and always gets the same answer.
As for Israeli officials saying that Hamas is lying, Baskin said: “I don’t know the truth, I just believe that if Hamas was holding on to him, they wouldn’t deny it. They would use him as a bargaining chip.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who returned from a visit to Italy on Thursday, said, “Two Israeli civilians are in the Gaza Strip in Hamas’s hands. The State of Israel is investing many efforts to return them to their families.
We view Hamas as being responsible for their fate and demand their return.”
Ya’alon said he had met with Mengistu’s family and updated them on steps to return him to Israel, and that he is also in touch with the family of the second Israeli held in the Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Thursday for the international community to deliver a clear call for the return of the two Israelis.
Netanyahu, in his first public comment on the matter, said he expected the international community “which expresses its concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, to issue a clear call for the release and return of the civilians.”
“We are working for the return of two Israelis who crossed the border into Gaza,” the prime minister said. “We see Hamas as responsible for their safety.”
Netanyahu said he appointed a representative to coordinate efforts on his behalf on this matter, and to be in contact with the families.
“Yesterday I spoke to the parents and the brother of Avraham Mengistu,” he said.
“I told them that from the moment that the incident was known we were not sparing any efforts to return him home.”
He said he would meet with the family again soon.
Channel 10 aired a recording Thursday night between Lior Lotan, Netanyahu’s representative, and the Mengistu family in which Lotan called on them not publicly talk about the case.
“Whoever connects Avra with the story between the Ethiopian community and the State of Israel will leave him in Gaza for another year,” said Lotan referring to the recent protests led by Ethiopian-Israelis against racism.
Lotan also warned the family against documenting the meeting saying in the recording, “This is unacceptable.
Meetings with me don’t get documented.” When Mengistu’s brother begins to respond, Lotan the said, “Don’t get into these things with me please, I’m an older man than you. Decide what you want – to work together or make a scene and manipulate us.”