Dead or alive? Five years after Mengistu enters Gaza, only silence

Since the story came to light over four years ago, media coverage of the issue has been almost nonexistent, and public demand for Avera’s release has been sporadic at best.

Protest outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art calling for the release of Avera Mengistu, held in Gaza by Hamas for five years  (photo credit: KOBI RICHTER/TPS)
Protest outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art calling for the release of Avera Mengistu, held in Gaza by Hamas for five years
(photo credit: KOBI RICHTER/TPS)
A few hundred people from the Youths for Avera group gathered outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on Sunday to commemorate five years since Avera Mengistu was taken captive by Hamas after crossing the border into Gaza.
The 32-year-old Mengistu was purportedly suffering from mental illness following the death of his brother, Michael, a few months prior. The family said that Mengistu “just closed off. He wouldn’t talk to anyone, he couldn’t accept that Michael had died,” Mengistu’s younger brother, Ilan, told The Jerusalem Post. “His situation really deteriorated, we had to hospitalize him twice.”
Ilan said he was the first to be notified by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) that his brother had entered Gaza.
“Two Shin Bet officials showed up at my house a day after the incident,” he said. “I remember blaming him when I first heard the news. I just thought, ‘For God’s sake, of all the places, couldn’t you find anywhere to go other than Gaza?’ But after some time, I realized I can’t really judge him. He was in a troubled mental state, didn’t know where he was or what he was doing.”
He said that the Shin Bet told the family to keep quiet about his being in Gaza while they tried to negotiate, but after 10 months of silence, “we realized that our silence was a death sentence to Avera. We violated the non-disclosure agreement and leaked the story to Haaretz.”
SINCE THE story came to light four years ago, media coverage of the issue has been almost nonexistent, and public demand for Mengistu’s release has been sporadic at best.
Yonit Tlayenesh Fenta, a neighbor of the Mengistu family and founder of the “Friends of Avera” activist group, gave the Post possible explanations for the lack of coverage regarding Mengistu’s captivity.
“The first association for a lot of people when they hear the words ‘Hamas’ and ‘prisoner’ is the Gilad Schalit deal, where over a thousand terrorists were released in exchange,” she said. “People are scared of that happening again.
“What people don’t understand is that it’s not a political issue, it’s a humanitarian issue,” Fenta continued. “He wasn’t a soldier, he carried no weapon with him. But even though that is supposed to be something that helps out on the awareness front, a lot of Israelis only seem to care about politics.”
Politicians have been silent on social media over the Mengistu issue, and with the election a week away, it seems the topic will not resurface before September 17.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali visited Israel last Sunday on a diplomatic mission and met Mengistu’s mother, among others.
“While we welcome any help we can possibly get for the cause, the visit did feel a bit cynical,” Fenta said. “Avera moved to Israel with his family when he was four years old. This isn’t an Ethiopian issue, it’s an Israeli issue.
“So many times I’ve heard strangers tell us we should talk to ‘our MK,’” referencing Avraham Neguise, Israeli-Ethiopian member of the Likud. “But what do you mean ‘our MK?’ He’s an Israeli MK, and Avera is an Israeli citizen.”
Similar criticisms regarding a feeling of “otherhood” have recently been floated by members of the Israeli-Ethiopian community, following the way the Israeli media labeled the latest string of protests the “Ethiopian Protest.”
“This protest wasn’t in Ethiopia, it was in Israel,” added Fenta. “Where is the solidarity among the people of Israel?”
Eli Bachar, a prominent member of the Friends of Avera movement, helped get the activist group “Friends of Ron” – an activist group of people devoted to the release of Ron Arad, a fighter-pilot captured in 1982 – involved in the process around two years ago.
The group has helped add military and diplomatic connections to Mengistu’s group of activists, a welcome addition since Mengistu family’s financial and socio-economic situation is challenging.
In an interview with the Post, Bachar remarked about his reasons for joining the fight to release Mengistu.
“What made me join the group was because Avera is a man without a voice,” he said. “The family is from a rural area, impoverished immigrants whose parents don’t speak the language.
“Avera isn’t a soldier and he was in an unstable mental state, so he’s been marginalized seven-fold,” he continued. “We don’t want this to be the Mengistu family’s problem, we want solidarity between the people of Israel.
“One of the problems hindering our battle for awareness is a lack of funding. Another thing that sets past captives apart from Avera is his family background. Having limited funds can really throw a wrench in the gears of whatever you want to bring awareness to.”
The Friends of Avera group is currently engaged in a crowdfunding venture meant to help raise awareness and international pressure for the release of Mengistu.