If you followed what was happening in Israel last week, then you probably saw the footage that Hamas put out of Avera Mengistu. As Israel was switching to its new IDF chief of staff, the terror organization in Gaza decided it was the right time to send a message to the Israeli public.
Mengistu is an Ethiopian Israeli who moved to Israel at age five. He is one of 10 children and grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Ashkelon, which is 20 km. from the Gaza Strip. Mengistu’s mother worked as a housekeeper and his father could not work so the Mengistu family belonged to the underprivileged and poorest sector of Israeli society.
Mengistu began to experience mental health issues in 2011, shortly after the death of his older brother Masrashau. He became withdrawn from family and friends and started to engage in minor forms of irresponsible self-harm. Mengistu could not keep a steady job, nor would he accept benefits from the National Insurance Institute. He began wandering off on his own, missing for days.
At different points, he was committed voluntarily and involuntarily for psychiatric treatment but refused to take medication after release. Overall, his condition began to deteriorate after his hospitalization.
Anyone who has a family member with mental illness knows that stories like Mengistu’s are more common than not. Maintaining and stabilizing a family member with mental illness at this level is challenging, and the Mengistu family had no resources to treat Mengistu.
Mengistu was exempt from mandatory IDF military service as he was labeled medically unfit for service. Later, one of Mengistu’s childhood friends reported that his condition continued to deteriorate.
How did Avera Mengistu end up in Gaza?
So what happened next? On September 7, 2014, Mengistu argued with his mother (he wanted money that she didn’t have) and he stormed out of the house without saying anything. He walked down to Zikim beach towards the security fence between Israel and Gaza. There is clear security footage of him walking towards the security fence, swimming through the waters and squeezing through the thick barbed wire to cross Israel into the Gaza Strip.
Reports say that the Israeli patrols guarding the fence spotted Mengistu near the security fence and allowed him to pass. A security camera caught Mengistu trying to climb the fence. The patrol guards that let him pass earlier were notified and rushed to stop him.
By the time the guards arrived, Mengistu had reached the top of the fence, ignoring the calls for him to stop and the warning shots that the guards fired into the air. The patrol guards claim they thought Mengistu was a Sudanese refugee who had decided to move to Gaza, an irresponsible move.
Mengistu crossed into the Gaza Strip and nobody heard from him for over eight years, until now.
Hamas and the captive Israelis in the Gaza Strip
After his crossing, Israel contacted the Red Cross and officials in the Gaza Strip to intervene and demanded they return Mengistu to Israel. Meanwhile, Hamas reported that when they interrogated Mengistu, he seemed to have psychological problems.
THEN LATER, in an attempt to legitimize their new hostage, the deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk lied to Al Jazeera in an interview. He claimed that Mengistu wore an IDF uniform, was mentally healthy and that his release came up in negotiations during Operation Protective Edge, which had happened weeks before Mengistu crossed into Gaza.
Before now, Hamas refused to divulge any information about Mengistu and their other political prisoners, tying their fates to negotiating another prisoner swap.
Indeed, Hamas is capitalizing on their prisoner and this video further proves the cynical war the terror group operates with. Even in the rules of combat, holding civilians with mental illness in captivity is a war crime and a violation of the law and international statutes.
Hamas also holds three more Israeli hostages: Hisham al-Sayed, an Arab-Israeli who also suffers from mental illness and the bodies of two IDF soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, thereby violating all moral standards and international law.
After eight and a half years, Hamas published the first video of Mengistu, intentionally trying to rile up the Israeli public at a time when Herzi Halevi takes on his new role as the IDF chief of staff. The video is a media stunt aimed at exploiting a humanitarian issue.
Several diplomatic efforts have been made, including the Mengistu family traveling to Geneva to speak with human rights groups. Eight and half years of efforts have thus far led to nothing.
Why do Israelis, Diaspora Jewry not care about Avera Mengistu?
Sadly, Mengistu’s captivity has garnered little public attention and action in Israel and the Jewish community worldwide. I remember what the attitude was when Gilad Schalit was held captive. I joined rallies in the Diaspora to demand his release, visited the family tent outside of Netanyahu’s home and stayed up all night watching how Israel released 1,027 monsters, like Alham Tamimi, to bring Gilad back home.
Where is the same outcry for Mengistu? Why isn’t our community mobilizing the way we did for Gilad? How has the Red Cross or the World Health Organization done nothing over a civilian with mental illness being held captive by a terror group? Why isn’t Black Lives Matter campaigning for Mengistu’s release? Every part of this story calls for social justice action, so where is it?
It seems that Mengistu is too black and poor for the Israeli government to care and too Israeli for the international community to care. I guess our society still has more work to do regarding race and minorities.
We have to do better about Mengistu because why should someone’s skin color or economic status mean that their life is worth less?
The writer is a social media activist with over 10 years of experience working for Israeli, Jewish and cause-based NGOs. She is the co-founder and the COO of Social Lite Creative, a digital marketing firm specializing in geopolitics.