Six years in, public demand growing for Avera Mengistu’s release

After 2,192 days in Hamas captivity, Balfour protesters have been demanding more government actions be taken for Avera's release.

Protesters hold up a large sign saying "Avera Mengistu: the child of all of us" during a protest outside the Prime Ministerial residence on Balfour street in Jerusalem (photo credit: IDAN ZONSHINE)
Protesters hold up a large sign saying "Avera Mengistu: the child of all of us" during a protest outside the Prime Ministerial residence on Balfour street in Jerusalem
(photo credit: IDAN ZONSHINE)
This week marks six full years since Avera Mengistu, a 33-year-old Israeli citizen, crossed the border into Gaza during a mental episode after the death of his older brother Michael, before being captured by Hamas.
Though Mengistu wasn’t captured during a military operation, comparisons to famed former-POW Gilad Schalit have been unavoidable.
Now that 2,192 days have passed since his capture, around eight months longer than the 1,941 days that Schalit spent as a prisoner, social justice activists and protesters alike are asking: Why is Avera still in Gaza?
One such activist is Avi Yalou, leader of the Tzedek (Justice) Party and prominent speaker at the weekly protests in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house in Jerusalem. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Yalou spoke about Avera’s story, and explained the reason he sees a need to protest for his safe return home.
“There’s this conception that we should stay silent and not make too much noise for fear of ‘raising the price’ during negotiations,” Yalou told the Post. “Okay, so you’ve had six years. What the hell have you been doing these past six years? What has the government done to bring him back? What actions have they taken?”
Yalou referenced the fact that Mengistu’s story had been under a strict nondisclosure warrant issued by Israel for 10 months after his capture, before his family disobeyed the warrant and broke the story to Haaretz, fearing diplomatic inaction.
“There’s a famous conversation that the Mengistu family had with Israel’s then-chief prisoner release negotiator, Lior Lotan, wherein he told them ‘you better not dare say this is a matter of race, point the finger at Jerusalem or Netanyahu, or protest in the streets for his release,’ and that ‘every action of this nature will result in another year or two being added to his prison time,’” Yalou told the Post.
When asked why he opposes this view, Yalou told the Post that “six years is enough time to act quietly, without making too much noise; we tried that.
“Without public protests, without making noise, Avera won’t return,” he added.
Yalou explained the humanitarian, apolitical nature of the story, saying “this isn’t some adventurer who was looking for a thrill. This is a man with mental issues, a man who was depressed, whose brother had just tragically passed away.”
However, Yalou also laid a large portion of the blame for Avera’s long captivity on state and military mismanagement.
“The first time the state failed in Avera’s story is that it didn’t respond to his medical and mental distress. The second time, the state failed by allowing him to cross the border,” Yalou said.
“It’s a security debacle that allowed him to cross. If you try to cross the border into Gaza today, you won’t succeed. But he succeeded, since the soldiers on the border saw a black man, assumed he was a refugee or an asylum-seeker, and didn’t really pay him any attention,” he said, explaining the reasons he believes Israel has a responsibility to bring Avera home.
Yalou also compared the differences in media coverage between Avera and Schalit, saying “there were people who opposed the Schalit deal at the time as well, saying it was too costly, but even they agreed that Gilad was the ‘child of us all.’ This is not the case with Avera.
“With Schalit, there were daily reminders on the news telling you how many days he’s been in captivity, constant interviews with the family, while Avera’s name is barely mentioned outside the realm of Ethiopian-Israeli issues. He came here when he was four, he is an Israeli citizen,” Yalou said, referencing an “othering” nature, which he says news reports about Avera seem to have.
However, Yalou’s ultimate critique of the story and the reasons for his capture seem to lie with a certain apathy that he sees in Israeli society at large, saying that “Avera Mengistu’s story holds within it all the different elements of the racism and apathy that exist within Israeli society.
“His story doesn’t seem to pass the minimum threshold needed to connect with people in our society. Not him, not his mother, or father, or brothers. There’s nothing you can do. He’s just ‘other.’ A neighbor, at best,” he concluded.