As Israeli and Turkish negotiators were set to meet Sunday in Rome to finalize an agreement on normalizing ties, said to include an easing of the sanctions on the Gaza Strip, the family of an Israeli man presumed held in the Palestinian territory staged a protest outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem office demanding he be released as part of the deal.
Avraham Abera Mengistu, 29, a Jew of Ethiopian descent, has been held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza for nearly two years. According to his family, he suffers from mental illness and stumbled across the border into the coastal territory by accident in 2014.
Mengistu’s relatives, who want Israel to demand Turkey obtain proof of life as a condition for signing any rapprochement deal, said they felt misled by officials during the months-long talks between Jerusalem and Ankara.
“We’ve been deceived. It’s inconceivable that Israel will sign this agreement while my brother is still being held prisoner,” said Ilan Mengistu, the prisoner’s brother, according to Channel 2.
“We put our trust in the Israeli government and Knesset to do their job faithfully,” he said. “Given the upcoming deal with Turkey, we feel as though we’ve been fooled.”
Ilan Mengistu slammed the Netanyahu government for “signing a humanitarian agreement with Turkey while my brother — who is not a soldier, just an innocent man who has never hurt anyone — is being held prisoner.
“Israel has the right to make this humanitarian demand” in its talks with Turkey, he added.
A second Israeli man, a resident of a Bedouin community in the Negev, is also thought to be held by Hamas in Gaza. His name has not been released for publication. He, too, apparently crossed the border of his own volition, and has been described as mentally disabled.
Meanwhile, the families of two IDF soldiers killed in the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip set up a protest tent outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem Sunday morning, demanding that the return of their sons’ remains also be included in the emerging deal with Ankara.
Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul were killed in separate incidents during Israel’s military offensive against Hamas. Though neither body was recovered, the army has classified both soldiers as “killed in action” based on forensic evidence.
Shaul’s family told reporters Sunday that any deal with Turkey that doesn’t include the return of their son’s remains was “unacceptable.”
In the face of the families’ protests, Netanyahu opened his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday by offering assurances his government was continuing to work toward securing the return of the captive Israelis and the bodies of the IDF soldiers.
“Israel is making constant efforts – both openly and in secret – to bring IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, may their memories be blessed, as well as the two Israeli citizens being held in the Gaza Strip, back to Israel.”
“We will not rest until we bring the boys home,” he added.
Israel’s Defense Ministry last year determined that Mengistu was scooped up by Hamas after illegally crossing the border, but the Islamist movement governing Gaza has provided no information about his whereabouts or condition. Still, its officials have taunted Israel, saying the Jewish state doesn’t care about Mengistu’s fate due to his Ethiopian heritage.
Since his disappearance, Israel has made clear that it holds Hamas ultimately responsible for the welfare and safety of Mengistu, and said it will not free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his release.
Israel-Turkey agreement likely Sunday
According to reports, an official agreement normalizing diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey was to be concluded later on Sunday.
If an agreement is reached, it would go before Israel’s security cabinet for approval on Wednesday, according to media reports and an Israeli official who requested anonymity.
Already-frayed relations between Israel and key NATO member Turkey were significantly downgraded after Israeli commandos staged a deadly pre-dawn raid on a six-ship flotilla in May 2010 as it tried to run the blockade on Gaza. Ten protesters attacked the Israeli soldiers and were killed in the ensuing firefight.
Two of Turkey’s key conditions for normalization — an apology and compensation — have largely been met, leaving its third demand, that Israel lift its blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, as the main obstacle.
According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the two sides have reached a compromise whereby Turkey would send aid for Palestinians via the Israeli port of Ashdod rather than directly to Gaza.
A meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry is also expected on Sunday in the Italian capital to discuss the state of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.