Marking the Jewish New Year, the families of two Israeli civilians held by Hamas in Gaza held a brief interfaith prayer ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday, calling on the terrorist organization to immediately release them.
The father and brother of Avera Mengistu, who entered Gaza exactly four years ago, were joined by the father of Hisham al-Sayed, who has been held there since April 2015.
Both men suffer from mental illnesses and crossed into the Hamas-held enclave unaware of the ramifications of their actions, their families members said.
“On Rosh Hashana Jewish families gather together to celebrate the new year. But the Mengistu family cannot celebrated the new year in a complete manner, because their son is not with them,” said Kes Samai Aliyas, the family’s spiritual guide.
“Avera and Hisham are civilians. They are not soldiers, they are not warriors. They entered Gaza unaware of their actions. Their release is a humanitarian matter,” he went on.
Sheikh Ibrahim Hawagra, who is close to the al-Sayed family, only addressed the event very briefly. “Now it’s Rosh Hashana. Inshallah they will come out in peace. Shana tova,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the Jewish new year.
Earlier this week, an Israeli army officer said for the first time that the military believes Mengistu and al-Sayed are alive.
“These reports give us hope,” Avera’s older brother Ilan Mengistu said. “Fortunately, the working assumption is that they’re alive. And we’re happy that there is no information that would contradict that. But we still have not received a single sign of life.”
Addressing some 20 reporters, he appealed to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, urging him to immediately release the captive men on humanitarian grounds.
“I plead to you to act like a human being and to take into account my brother’s nervous and mental condition,” he said. “The decision is in your hands. Within two hours, Avera and Hisham could be back home with their families, and get the medical care they need and deserve.”
Hisham al-Sayed’s father Sha’aban criticized Hamas for using his son and Mengistu as political cards in their fight against Israel. His son had inadvertently entered Gaza twice before, but the terrorist group returned him to Israel after realizing his mental illness, he said.
“Hamas changed. And it’s not for the benefit of the Palestinian people,” he said. “We are all for the Palestinian people, we are part of the Palestinian people.”
He urged Palestinians in Gaza and across the world to apply pressure on Hamas until they return the two captured Israeli citizens. “Hamas is not acting in your interest,” he said, speaking in Arabic through a translator.
Asked by a reporter whether he feels the Israeli government is doing enough to secure the return of Mengistu and al-Sayed, and whether he thinks that more would be done if his son were Jewish, al-Sayed replied: “I don’t think there is any racism. The government is doing all that it can for Avera and Hisham al-Sayed, just as it would do for anyone else.”