Dozens gathered in central Tel Aviv on Sunday night to commemorate three years that Israeli civilian Abera Mengistu has been held by the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.
On September 7, 2014, Mengistu crossed into northern Gaza from the beach at Zikim. According to his parents, who spoke at Sunday’s rally, the 28-year-old suffered from a mental illness and didn’t understand what he was doing when he entered the Strip. Once inside Gaza, Mengistu was captured by Hamas and has been in their custody ever since.
“Unfortunately, today we are commemorating three years that Abera has been in captivity. There isn’t one day that mom doesn’t pray for you to come home,” one of Mengistu’s older brothers told the crowd.
“We’ll continue to yell, to fight, until you come home, healthy and whole,” he added.
At its peak, over 100 people were in attendance at the rally, held in Habima Square, just off the popular Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv.
Many of the participants came from Israel’s Ethiopian community. Dozens of teenagers from various youth groups also dotted the crowd, standing out in blue shirts.
The attendees wore black and white T-shirts adorned with sayings like “Until when, Abera?” and “Abera’s still alive,” a reference to the “Gilad’s still alive” campaign for Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who was held by Hamas in Gaza for five years before he was released as part of a controversial prisoner exchange.
Mengistu’s father, Haili, spoke to the crowd in his native Amharic, which was then translated into Hebrew. “We only see darkness,” he said. “We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Despite painting a bleak picture, one of no hope on the horizon, Haili said he still prays that he’ll see his son again.
Mengistu’s mother, Agurnesh, was initially reluctant to address the rally, but after a few moments, she also agreed to speak.
Through tears, she said she can’t understand how Hamas can keep her son locked up for this long. “Are their hearts made of stone? Do they not have children?” she said in Amharic, which was translated into Hebrew.
One of the organizers, Imaye Taga, said he was disappointed by the turnout at the event.
“Abera has been in captivity for three years and this is how many people come,” Taga said, motioning to the small crowd, which took up approximately a quarter of the square.
“Reality doesn’t always live up to our expectations,” said Taga, a soccer player who was fined for wearing a protest shirt for Mengistu during a match last year.
Taga told The Times of Israel he didn’t feel the government “was doing everything it could to bring him back. Not at all.”
He noted that politicians often bring up the fact that the bodies of two IDF soldiers — Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul — are being held by Hamas, but do not always mention that two live Israelis, Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, are also in captivity. A third Israeli, Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, is also believed to be held by Hamas. All three apparently crossed into Gaza of their own accord.
In addition to the short speeches, a number of local musicians played songs for the gathered masses. At 9:30 p.m., two hours after the rally began, the organizers thanked all those who helped put it together and the crowd for coming.
“Hopefully next year we won’t have to have a rally like this because you’ll be home,” one organizer said.
Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said there was no easy way for Israel to bring back Mengistu, al-Sayed, Abu Ghanima, Goldin and Shaul, short of capitulating to Hamas’s demands or reoccupying the Gaza Strip.
Any other solution, Liberman told The Times of Israel, will require patience.
Liberman was responding to the media storm that followed comments he made earlier last week, in which he said that Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captives held by Hamas.
This was in reference to the 2011 deal to bring Gilad Shalit back to Israel in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian detainees.
The defense minister stressed that public and media pressure only weakens Israel’s position. He said that Israel needs to change tack and stop releasing Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for captive Israelis.
“The time has come to flip the script that began with the Jibril deal that saw those released initiate and carry out the First Intifada, and through the Shalit deal, whose freed [prisoners] set the tone for Hamas in Gaza, including the organization’s leader Yahya Sinwar. Those released in the Shalit deal are responsible for the murder of Israelis,” Liberman said.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.