‘Let me explain to you how real life works, not what see in the movies. Do you really think the prime minister can be slammed and still continue to prioritize your case?” The Mengistu family members were dumbfounded by the harsh words and tone of Lior Lotan, documented in a video taken during one of their last meetings. IDF Col. (res.) Lotan is presently the prime minister’s coordinator for missing persons and fallen soldiers. He gave this warning just 10 months before the removal of a gag order that had been placed on the case of Avera Mengistu and Lotan’s faltering efforts to release him from the hands of Hamas.
Avera Mengistu, 31, seems to have entered the Gaza Strip of his own free will over two years ago. Avera comes from a traditional family from Ashkelon that immigrated from Ethiopia and – like most Ethiopian Jews – struggled to socially and economically integrate into Israeli society.
Avera was deemed physically unfit to join the army after high school, so he worked menial jobs and somehow got by. Things deteriorated quickly after a tragedy hit his family: he lost his older brother, who had been his close friend and mentor. Avera’s parents and siblings argue that this loss destabilized him, whereupon he began to wander off in solitude, hitchhiking across the country and going absent for days.
In September 2014 Avera wandered off in the direction of Gaza, and under unclear circumstances was captured, interrogated and held by Hamas. Israeli and Palestinian sources disclose that Avera has been played as a “bargaining chip” in Hamas-Israel negotiations ever since.
The Mengistu family was wounded not only by the fact that their son had become a Hamas prisoner, but also by the approach of the establishment, made bluntly clear by Col. Lotan in his talks with the family, and by the general indifference of the general Israeli public.
Two other Israeli families are in a similar situation.
Beduin citizen Hisham al-Sayed went missing in Gaza in April 2015, and Jumma Ibrahim Abu Gnima went missing in July 2016. Both seem to have been suffering from depression and other mental problems.
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Mainstream media barely covers the stories of Avera, Hisham and Jumma. There has hardly been discussion of them in Knesset – in fact once the gag order was lifted from the stories of Avera and Hisham, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time claimed he had was not been aware of their cases.
The three families of the missing persons say they rarely hear from the Prime Minister’s Office or his special envoy Lotan, especially since the signing of the recent Israeli-Turkish reconciliation agreement.
It is hard to overlook the intersection of socio-economic, ethnic and other traits of the missing three citizens with the institutional neglect of their case.
The cases of Avera, Hisham and Jumma aren’t like previous cases that seized the headlines for many weeks and much more – as in the case of Gilad Schalit, who was released from Hamas’ hands in an unprecedented deal in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and other prisoners, or the case of Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was exchanged for more than 400 Lebanese in a deal with Hamas, or the case of Nachshon Wachsman who died in an operation to rescue him and two other soldiers from Hamas.
Unlike Gilad, Elhanan and Nachshon, Avera, Hisham and Jumma are not soldiers who were kidnapped in Israel and dragged into Gaza or Lebanon. They were kidnapped in Gaza. They were not sent to fight by the state, but they are of the state – meaning they are citizens the state is obligated to fight for. The state must remain committed to the lives of all its citizens, whether on duty or not, white or black, Jewish or Beduin. Everyone’s freedom matters. Everyone’s life matters.
The government even boasts of a commitment to bring its dead back for burial in Israel. It has paid heavily in the past to retrieve bodies. For the names of the soldiers’ bodies currently held by Hamas – Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul – there are 145,000 and 205,000 results on Google respectively. Avera, Hisham and Jumma are alive, but a search for their names yields only 35,000, 1,600 and 796 results respectively.
Whether or not depression or other problems led them into Gaza, being ill must not entail a death sentence.
The public, media and institutional oblivion to their cases, however, is likely to spell just that.
As for Hamas, despite being enemies, it expects Israel to treat its people with basic humanitarian standards. That is why the former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh had no qualms about sending his daughter and granddaughter to an Israeli hospital – and Israel was right to treat them. Some things should be beyond and outside military strategy.
That is why Hamas must release Avera, Hisham and Jumma immediately. They hold no military value and represent the epitome of what a humanitarian case is.
Finally, the international community must raise its voice, too. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is full of contradicting interests, alliances, commitments and values. There is occupation, terrorism, incitement and historical grievances. It rarely provides a straightforward problem such as that of these three young men, who are held by Hamas and should simply be sent home.
Their families are highly underprivileged and from the back yard of Israel’s society and economy. They cannot champion the fight for Avera, Hisham and Jumma on their own. They need any help they can get. We must remember their names and take action.
Any action. Even if it is only symbolic, it may somehow trigger some positive development.
If all of us take no more than five minutes to sign a petition, publish a post on Facebook, re-tweet some article about them, or call up someone we know who can help – that may be able to do something.
Along with young friends in the Labor Party, I have recently written an appeal to international organizations, governments, parliaments and political parties worldwide to raise a call of solidarity with Avera, Hisham and Jumma. Next week our appeal will be raised in Burkina Faso, where the presidium of the International Union of Socialist Youth will convene, discuss and vote on it. From there we will continue to appeal on other platforms.
Israeli solidarity seems to have eroded for a long time. The harsh words of Lior Lotan to the Mengistu family, as cited above, must never be the spirit with which we treat one another. Hamas had betrayed its basic human decency so often. The international community lost time and again on countless issues and cases. This is an opportunity to do well. Let’s not simply let it go by.
The author is a member of the Labor Party and a PhD student.
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