In September 2014, an Israeli man crossed into the Gaza Strip. Despite pleading by his family and supporters, he has been held there ever since. In April 2015, another Israeli crossed into Gaza and is also being held there.Both of them have histories of mental-health conditions, Human Rights Watch reported in 2017. Their names are Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.
Yet Israel worked hard this month to release a woman held in Syria for two weeks, while appearing to do little for two Israelis held in Gaza. In addition, Hamas has been holding the remains of Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul in Gaza since the 2014 war.
The lengths to which the government went to release a woman held in Syria is in contrast to the way it has appeared to ignore the pleading from the families of Shaul, Goldin, Mengistu and Sayed. This has led to questions of whether racism or other factors underpin the less-rigorous attempts to get back two living Israelis held in Gaza. Many on social media have expressed concern that the Gaza cases have been ignored.
Elliot Jager posted a New York Times article about the release of the woman from Syria and wrote on Twitter that it left “observers perplexed: [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu trades Israeli purchase of Russian vaccines to Assad exchange for mentally disturbed ex-haredi [woman] briefly held in Syria but couldn’t cut a similar deal for Avera Mengistu [a] disturbed Israeli Ethiopian held by Hamas six years.”
Many others expressed similar concerns.
IT IS difficult to understand the treatment being given to the Mengistu, Sayed, Goldin and Shaul families. In November 2019, Netanyahu met the Mengistu and al-Sayed families. He also met the Mengistu family in July 2015 and vowed to bring the man home. Along with the Ethiopian prime minister, Netanyahu also met the mother of Mengistu in September 2019.
Claims of racism regarding the case of Mengistu have haunted the government since 2015. The differing treatment of the Ethiopian Jewish family and others held over the years appears clear. The lack of public protest and pressure is also clear.
In general, Israel has been accused of ignoring Arab-Israeli families who want their loved ones who are being held by foreign regimes returned from abroad.
There is a sense in some Israeli sectors that one’s worth to the state is largely determined by the ability to have lobbying power, how close a person is to the center of power and by how much one is seen as Jewish and from communities that can pressure the government.
Others, however, have pointed out over the years that the case of Mengistu and Sayed are different because of claims they crossed voluntarily into Gaza rather than being kidnapped or taken during a war.
But that claim now appears to be running into a problem, because the woman held in Syria also went on her own initiative. Reports about her case say she is 25 years old and has made attempts to enter Gaza in the past, saying that “no fence will stop me.” A report said she also attempted to cross illegally into Jordan.
Mengistu apparently only tried once to cross to Gaza and has been held there since. Unlike the woman, he was not stopped by border security. Questions abound about why that was the case.
It will be difficult to continue to justify not putting an emphasis on Mengistu and Sayed after the measures Israel took to bring a citizen back from Syria. But it doesn’t seem like the government will go to great lengths to free these men after so many years.
It leaves one wondering whether more would have been done years ago if they had been born with a different skin color or in a different religious community.
Or is it simply because it is easier to deal with the Syrian regime and Moscow when it comes to getting people back from Syria? Sgt.-Maj. Zachary Baumel’s remains were brought back to Israel in April 2019 after he had been missing since the First Lebanon War in 1982.
The Syrian regime is brutal, but it is open to more pragmatic deals than Hamas, in part because Hamas put such a high price on returning Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was held from 2006 to 2011.
Hamas has suffered little international damage due to its sadistic hostage taking. Last year, its leaders got red-carpet treatment twice in visits to NATO-member Turkey. Gaza continues to receive payments from Qatar, and Hamas members have hobnobbed with Malaysian leaders, Iran and other regimes.
The inconsistency in the treatment of hostages has now become harder to explain and accept and will hopefully be resolved so that Mengistu, Sayed, Goldin and Shaul will finally be brought home soon.