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Family of Israeli civilian held in Gaza for 6 years laments public apathy

On anniversary of Avera Mengistu crossing into Hamas-controlled territory, siblings say state will only act when it sees widespread support for his release

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

The siblings of an Israeli civilian held captive in the Gaza Strip lamented the “apathetic” attitude of both the government and the public to bringing about the release of their brother, in remarks made on the sixth anniversary of the day the now-33-year-old crossed into the Hamas-run territory.

“The government has always acted according to public sentiment and once it understands that there is widespread public support, things will change. Unfortunately, that is not yet the case,” Ilan Mengistu said during an interview with the Ynet news site.

In September 2014, Avera Avraham Mengistu, whose family has said he suffered from depression, crossed into northern Gaza from the beach at Zikim. After he entered the coastal enclave, the terror group was thought to have arrested him.

Ilan said his family has not been given a single bit of information from government officials regarding Avera’s whereabouts and condition over the past six years other than the assessment that he is alive and in Hamas captivity.

“The uncertainty is simply cruel,” he said.

(From L-R) Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Hamas captive Avera Mengistu’s mother Agarnesh and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 1, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/PMO)

The Mengistu family has been in touch with the chief negotiator for the release of Israelis held by Hamas, Yaron Blum, as well as others in the government, Ilan said, but lamented that “indifference” has led to “no serious actions to negotiate for his return.”

Asked if the family had been given any developments in recent months, during which Hamas has voiced an interest in a prisoner exchange against the backdrop of the pandemic, Ilan said, “Unfortunately the government has always missed opportunities.”

He blasted Israel for worrying more about the humanitarian rights of those in Gaza than his brother.

Ilan was then pressed to explain why he thought the public has not rallied around his brother the way Israelis did in calling for the return of Gilad Shalit, an ex-IDF soldier who was held captive by Hamas from 2006 to 2011.

“There is support [for Avera], but unfortunately it is still not sufficient,” Ilan said, adding that there is not enough awareness for those suffering from mental illness.

“They don’t get enough attention, and when they do get attention it’s dismissive,” he said.

He left open the possibility that race has played a factor in the overall apathy, but declined to delve into the issue when asked. “I’m not denying [that it’s a possibility], but I’m not there right now,” he said.

“We as a family have been experiencing an ongoing nightmare for six years, and we just want to see Avera at home. I want to thank everyone who helps us and supports us, and I hope that many more will join our struggle.”

The parents of Avraham Abera Mengistu protest outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, September 11, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In an op-ed published Monday on the Davar news site, Avera’s sister Almanash described the towering role her brother played in her life.

“It is important for me that you know, for example, that when I was little and had a fight with my brothers, [Avera] was always by my side and really protected,” she wrote. “It is important to me that you know that… whenever he enters a room there is a good and fun atmosphere, that he has always been surrounded by friends.”

“It’s important to me that you know that this is a citizen whose mental health is not good and every day he is in captivity endangers his life,” she continued.

“For six years, the government has done nothing to bring him back,” Almanash charged, claiming her family had asked for any bit of information regarding his psychological state and that Israeli authorities did not push to receive an answer.

“I do not think much about the [the possibility of] his return. I feel we are far from that,” she lamented.

Also on Monday, star singers Shlomi Shabbat and Eden Alene released a single commemorating the anniversary of Mengistu’s captivity titled, “What are you going through.”

“Every time a new song of mine is released, there’s a desire for it to succeed. This time that feeling is stronger than ever — you can even call [the song] a prayer,” Shabbat wrote in a Facebook post linking to the new single.

“I pray that this song will reach his ears and strengthen him so that he knows we have not forgotten him,” Shabbat added.

Last week, the security cabinet approved a new policy that allows Israel to keep the bodies of all Palestinians who are believed to have committed attacks, whether or not they were affiliated with the Hamas terror group.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that he had asked the cabinet to pass the new policy because he believed it would help bring back Israeli captives.

Previous Israeli policy was only to hold onto the bodies of Hamas terrorists for a potential prisoner exchange with the terror group. Others were returned to their families for burial.

In addition to Mengistu, Hamas has for several years been holding captive Israeli civilian Hisham al-Sayed, as well as the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

Whether holding the bodies of attackers is an effective policy is a subject of debate within the security establishment. Some believe that it gives Israel additional leverage in negotiations with Hamas, as well as acting as a deterrent against attacks. Others see it as ineffective and based on shaky legal ground.

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