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Analysis

Hamas seeks high price for Israelis who fell into its lap

Gaza’s Islamist rulers are spreading disinformation and issuing demands. But Israel won’t want to pay another Shalit-style price for 2 men who apparently entered the Strip of their own accord

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: Hamas members watch as a bus carrying Palestinian prisoners arrives at the Rafah crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on October 18, 2011. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
Illustrative: Hamas members watch as a bus carrying Palestinian prisoners arrives at the Rafah crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on October 18, 2011. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

Hamas has been holding Avraham Mengistu captive in Gaza for 10 months and didn’t say a word about it. And neither did Israel.

There were numerous reports about him in the Arabic media, some of them claiming Mengistu was swept into Gaza by sea, including reports by the popular Palestinian Maan news agency and the pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen. Millions of Palestinians and Arabs across the Middle East knew that Mengistu was in Hamas hands, and yet Hamas — and the State of Israel — kept silent.

Razi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, was even in contact with Gershon Baskin, an American-born Israeli who was instrumental in the 2011 Gilad Shalit exchange, as part of an effort to launch negotiations on Mengistu’s release. And still the silence continued.

Baskin told The Times of Israel on Thursday morning that a senior Hamas official insisted to him that Mengistu is no longer in Gaza, having been released after questioning — when it became clear that he was not a soldier — and made his way into the Sinai via a tunnel. This claim seems highly implausible. It’s possible that it’s being made because Mengistu was injured during interrogation and Hamas wants to evade responsibility. It’s also likely that Hamas is deliberately spreading disinformation for its own tactical reasons.

It’s not hard to understand why Hamas would want to sow confusion regarding Mengistu’s fate and condition. It’s harder to fathom why official Israel insisted on keeping from the Israeli public all information, including widely circulated Arabic reports, on the case.

Avraham Mengistu, 28, who is being held captive by Hamas (Facebook)
Avraham Mengistu, 28, who is being held captive by Hamas (Facebook)

Mengistu and a second captive Israeli, a Bedouin who crossed into the Strip, constitute significant assets for Gaza’s Islamist rulers. Hamas tried hard but failed to capture Israeli soldiers in the course of last summer’s 50-day war, but now holds two Israelis who fell into its lap — who apparently crossed the border of their own accord.

The Islamist rulers of Gaza know that Israel will not pay a high price for the remains of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul, who fell in last summer’s war. Two living Israelis change the equation.

On Wednesday, Hamas’s leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal talked about negotiations between Israel and Hamas for two dead and two missing Israelis. He claimed that Israel has sought to work via European intermediaries for their return. But, said Mashaal, Hamas will not give up any information whatsoever until Israel releases all the Hamas members who had gone free in the Shalit exchange but who were rearrested late last spring, when Israel was seeking information on the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped by a Hamas terror cell and later found murdered in the West Bank.

In other words, Hamas is seeking a major gain before it even consents to negotiate for the Israelis it is holding dead and alive. It wants to repay a pre-war “debt” to the Palestinian public, and especially to the affected Palestinian families, by securing the release of those re-arrested Shalit prisoners. This would also give Hamas a significant boost in Palestinian public opinion.

The three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank in June 2014, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. (Courtesy)
The three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank in June 2014, from left to right: Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. (Courtesy)

The question is whether Israel is prepared to pay the kind of price Hamas has in mind for Mengistu, a young man with apparent psychological problems who seemingly crossed the border of his own accord rather than as part of military service, and for a Bedouin who entered Gaza for reasons not entirely clear.

The Shalit deal cost Israel dearly. Many of the 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners who were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit are today directing West Bank terrorist activity from Gaza and from Turkey, where they were deported. Those terrorist operations have cost Israeli lives. Israel agreed to the exchange four years ago for the sake of a soldier who had been held hostage for years, having been kidnapped from inside Israel during his military service. The current equation is very different, featuring two Israelis who entered Gaza under other circumstances.

Nonetheless, official Israel’s insistent months-long silence on the affair raises questions. It’s reasonable to assume that had Mengistu come from a well-established Israeli family the effort at censorship would not have held up for more than a few days. The fact that he comes from an impoverished, Ethiopian background, less experienced in Israel, made the act of censorship easier.

It may also have given rise to the notion that Israel could secure a less costly deal for his freedom — a notion that seems naive, even childish. Hamas will certainly demand a heavy price for the release of Mengistu and the second, as yet unnamed, Israeli.

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