Israel fears Ethiopian-Israeli Avraham Mengistu, 28, who disappeared into the Gaza Strip 10 months ago and is said to be held by Hamas, may not be alive.
According to a Channel 2 report Friday night, sources in Jerusalem are considering this possibility based on the behavior of the Gaza Strip rulers since Mengistu was last seen in September of last year. There has been no sign of life from him since.
Hamas has not been clear about whether it is holding the Israeli and has not made any demands for his release. A senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied that the group was holding Mengistu. According to the official, Mengistu was briefly held by the group but was released a short while later after Hamas interrogators determined he was not a soldier. The official further claimed that the Israeli citizen left the coastal strip via a tunnel to Sinai, apparently in an attempt to reach Ethiopia.
At a rally in Gaza on Wednesday, however, Hamas displayed a huge model fist holding a mock up of fallen soldier Oren Shaul’s ID card and two other IDF IDs with question marks on them, implying that it holds two Israeli soldiers captive. (Mengistu, who suffered from unspecified mental issues, was rejected for IDF service.)
Israel has made clear that it holds Hamas ultimately responsible for the welfare and safety of Mengistu and another Israeli citizen being held in Gaza since April.
Senior Israeli officials have also made clear that there will be no Palestinian prisoners exchanged for the two missing Israelis. According to Channel 2, this decision was conveyed to the families of the two men.
Negotiations for the hostages were also not expected to be part of any agreement with Hamas for the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Shaul, who were both killed during last year’s 50-day war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group, according to Israeli officials.
The captivity of the two men is viewed by Israel as a humanitarian issue unrelated to the negotiations over the bodies of the two deceased soldiers and Israel has said it expects Hamas to release them on a humanitarian basis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Mengistu family on Friday afternoon, vowing to do everything possible to bring their son home.
“We are doing everything in our ability to return Avra [short for Avraham] to Israel, just as we are in contact with the family of the other Israeli citizen in order to bring him back to Israel as well,” Netanyahu said in reference to a second Israeli citizen, as yet unnamed, who is also in the Strip.
“We will not slacken and we will do everything necessary in order to bring these citizens back home,” he said.
“We face a very cynical and cruel enemy that denies the basic humanitarian obligation to send innocent citizens back to their country,” Netanyahu said after the visit.
Hamas has previously used captives as leverage to press the Israeli government to release Palestinian security prisoners. In 2011, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, in four waves, in return for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
A gag order concerning the two hostages was lifted early Thursday, following a court petition by two Israeli media outlets.
On Wednesday, however, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal alluded to Mengistu and the second man when discussing Israelis held by his organization.
Speaking with the Arabic language al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper, Mashaal claimed Israel had requested of European officials that they mediate in negotiations with Hamas over the release of the captured individuals.
“We won’t let Israeli prisoners go before the release of Palestinian prisoners,” Mashaal told the outlet.
Mashaal’s comments followed several hints from Hamas that it was holding Mengistu and another live Israeli captive, in addition to the bodies of Goldin and Shaul. Israeli officials have confirmed in the past that the Gaza-based group holds the remains of the two IDF soldiers.
Mengistu climbed over the Gaza security fence in September last year. Family members have described him as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.
The second hostage, an Israeli from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April. According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.
On Thursday, Gershon Baskin, an Israeli negotiator involved in the talks, backed up claims that despite repeated attempts by Israel to engage with Hamas diplomatically, the Gaza-based group continues to deny it is holding Mengistu, leaving negotiations in a deadlock.
“They wanted to return him back to Israel; he refused to be sent back,” Baskin said, quoting Hamas, adding that spokesmen for the terror group said that “he was briefly detained, but let go when it became clear he had mental issues.”
“According to Hamas, they’re not holding him and this has been checked by the government, the Hamas police and the al-Qassam Brigade,” said Baskin, who said he had been involved in talks with Mashaal for months to secure Mengistu’s release.
Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.