Security Cabinet, Knesset were not informed about Israelis missing in Gaza

Security sources initially kept Mengistu’s disappearance quiet because they feared publicity would raise the number of prisoners Hamas would demand to return him.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.
The security cabinet, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and its confidential subcommittees were not told about the two Israelis missing in Gaza, lawmakers said on Thursday.
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said that as foreign minister and a member of the security cabinet at the time, he did not hear that Avraham Mengistu crossed the fence into the Gaza Strip last September and that he was surprised to find out about it on Thursday.
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 Tamnu-Shata, who was a Yesh Atid MK at the time.
The security cabinet was not updated because no cabinet decisions needed to be made in connection to the matter, sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said.
MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) also said she heard about Mengistu, not as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but from Tamnu-Shata.
“Pnina talked when it happened. She opened a war room, but then she was asked not to talk,” Lavie recounted.
Tamnu-Shata declined to comment.
Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) admitted that he first heard about the incidents from the media, though he has only been in his position for a month and a half, telling Radio 103fm that he assumes the secret subcommittees were informed.
However, several MKs who were in the committee in the last Knesset and the current one, including members of various subcommittees, said they were not given any information.
One source in the confidential Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services, which is responsible for oversight of how the government deals with captives, among other issues, said a security official answered a question about Mengistu, but did not volunteer any information.
“We were never told,” said MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), a current member of the committee and one in the 19th Knesset. He called the lack of parliamentary oversight very troubling and asked the comptroller to immediately investigate how the government dealt with the matter.
“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 Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union), currently a member of the Subcommittee for Intelligence and a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the last Knesset, said that while the two missing Israelis were not brought up in meetings, he knew about Mengistu because the family spoke to him.
“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 Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee,” Bar-Lev said.
Bar-Lev said he did not know why the gag order was lifted Thursday, but he theorized that security forces came to the conclusion that the tactic of silence was not working.
“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 explained. “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.’” MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union), however, said he was surprised that the Defense Ministry kept Mengistu’s disappearance secret from even the confidential committees.
“It wasn’t that big of a secret.
I guess they thought that if the story got out it would raise the price, but that is not a good enough reason. They should have told those who were responsible for oversight,” he said, referring to the Subcommittee for Intelligence.
The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s spokesman said the panel “regularly received ongoing reports on diplomatic and security matters of the day, including the most sensitive topics. This case seems to be a one-time error.
We will study the event and make sure it does not happen again.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) heard about Mengistu from Ethiopian- Israeli activists, and brought up the issue in his regular meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he is supposed to be updated on diplomatic and security matters.
Since then, Herzog has asked European dignitaries visiting Israel to help bring Mengistu’s release.
“This is a complex and painful humanitarian matter. I am committed to solving it through all relevant factors,” Herzog said.