Brother of Israeli held in Gaza says world needs to press Hamas
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Brother of Israeli held in Gaza says world needs to press Hamas

Ilan Mengistu, whose brother Abera is captive of terror group, welcomes new negotiator, laments country’s apathy

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The brother of Avraham Mengistu speaks with the media at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was been lifted over Mengistu's disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The brother of Avraham Mengistu speaks with the media at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was been lifted over Mengistu's disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It has been over three years since Abera Mengistu crossed into Gaza and fell into the hands of the Hamas terrorist organization, and his family is concerned the country isn’t doing all it can to return him and the others held captive in the Strip.

“This was a civilian who’s not connected to anything. He never had a weapon, never did anything,” said Ilan Mengistu, Abera’s brother.

The government “has a responsibility to protect its citizens. That’s its job. But they’re not doing a lot of things that they could do,” Ilan told The Times of Israel on Sunday night.

On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced he had appointed Yaron Blum to lead the effort to bring back Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and the remains of two fallen IDF soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. (There are two other Israeli citizens who crossed into Gaza in recent years, but they are not considered by the government to be captives of Hamas.)

Avraham Mengistu, undated. (Courtesy of the Mengistu family via AP)

The family has yet to meet with Blum in person — they are scheduled to do so in a few days — but Ilan Mengistu said that he seems like a good and capable negotiator. However, he said, the family feels that what will turn the tide is additional pressure on Hamas from the international community.

The issue of captives in Israel is fraught with controversy, especially after the hotly contested deal to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in 2011, which saw over 1,000 convicted terrorists released from Israeli prisons.

Manal al-Sayed holds up a picture of her son, Hisham, who is believed to be held captive in Gaza by the Hamas terrorist group, in 2016. (Yoav Lemmer/AFP)

The cases of Mengistu and al-Sayed are even more complicated, as unlike Shalit, they were not kidnapped and smuggled into Gaza by Hamas, but entered the Strip of their own accord. (Both of them have histories of mental illness.)

Ilan Mengistu said the family does not have a specific view on whether or not Israel should agree to another prisoner swap, likely a heavily lopsided one, in order to secure Abera’s release.

“We’re not getting into that. That’s a government decision,” he said.

However, Ilan said Israel should be doing more to get countries that have relationships with Hamas, like Egypt and Qatar, as well as more powerful allies, like the United States, to put pressure on the group to release Abera, Hisham and the two soldiers’ remains.

Former Shin Bet official Yaron Blum speaks in a Channel 10 interview on September 15, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)

“The country isn’t putting enough pressure on them,” he said.

To that end, Ilan Mengistu and some supporters will travel to the United States next month to appear at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference, and, he hopes, at the United Nations as well.

By reaching out to American Jews through the Federation event, they hope to raise awareness about Abera, giving their campaign to have him released a greater impact, he said.

The Mengistu family has had a hard time raising awareness about Abera’s plight, though it has been an easier task than al-Sayed’s family has faced getting recognition for their son, who is rarely discussed in Israeli news outlets.

Above: Abera Mengistu’s family protests in front of the Prime Minister’s residence, September 11, 2016.

Ilan credits Israel’s apathy, in part, to the fact that Abera comes from the country’s Ethiopian community and that his parents do not speak fluent Hebrew. But he said that a more significant roadblock in getting word out is the family’s low socioeconomic status.

“We just don’t have the resources,” he said, and because of that “our voice isn’t loud enough.”

The media sets the agenda for the day, and for some reason they’re not interested in Abera

Ilan criticized the media for not taking a more active interest in his brother’s story, unlike in the case of Gilad Shalit or the fallen soldiers, Goldin and Shaul.

“The media sets the agenda for the day, and for some reason they’re not interested in Abera,” he said.

Though the campaign to get Abera released from Gaza got off to a slow start, his brother said it has been attracting more supporters.

“A number of people have joined the effort, like the friends of Nachshon Waxman,” Ilan said, referring to an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1994.

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