Unlike slain soldiers, Israeli civilians missing in Gaza largely overlooked

Unlike slain soldiers, Israeli civilians missing in Gaza largely overlooked

4 Israelis are known to have illicitly crossed into Strip in the past 3 years, yet race, mental illness and complexities of the situation keep the issue on the back burner

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Manal al-Sayed holds up a picture of her son, Hisham, who is believed to be held captive in Gaza by the Hamas terrorist group, in 2016. (Yoav Lemmer/AFP)
Manal al-Sayed holds up a picture of her son, Hisham, who is believed to be held captive in Gaza by the Hamas terrorist group, in 2016. (Yoav Lemmer/AFP)

On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had appointed Yaron Blum, a former Shin Bet officer and hostage negotiator, to take over the effort to secure the release of the Israeli civilians and slain soldiers held hostage in Gaza by the Hamas terrorist group.

The names of the two soldiers whose remains were captured by Hamas are known by nearly all Israelis: Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

In the Knesset, political rivals MK Amir Peretz, of the Labor party, and MK Shuli Mualem, of the Jewish Home party, formed a caucus dedicated to bringing back the bodies of the fallen servicemen, who were captured during the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.

Yet the names and even the number of live Israeli civilians currently in Gaza have far less recognition. For the record, there are four: Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed, Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima and one whose name has not be released to the public. All willingly, and illegally, crossed over the border. Not all of them is necessarily being held captive by Hamas.

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

The lack of interest in their cases has raised allegations of racism — as one of the potential captives is of Ethiopian descent and the rest are Arab — as well as accusations of discrimination against the mentally ill, as three of the men seemed to be suffering from psychological disorders when they entered Gaza.

The presence of Israelis in the Strip also raised again the contentious issue of how much the government should be prepared to sacrifice for individual citizens, as well as the state’s responsibility toward citizens who willingly put themselves in harms way.

And while matters of race and bigotry are supposed to have relatively simple solutions, these issues of government responsibility and its strategic implications are far more difficult to resolve.

For the former coordinator of the prisoner negotiations, Lior Lotan, the stresses of the sensitive position apparently grew too great and he stepped down in August, after three years in the role.

Former Shin Bet official Yaron Blum speaks in a Channel 10 interview on September 15, 2015. (screen capture: YouTube)

In his resignation, Lotan told the prime minister that the position was “extremely demanding, both professionally and personally and it was therefore appropriate to change personnel every few years.”

His replacement, Blum, will have some understanding of the challenges facing him, having served on the small team that negotiated the return of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who was held by Hamas for five years before being released in a highly controversial prisoner exchange in 2011.

It began with Abera

On September 4, 2014, Abera Mengistu, a then-28-year-old Ethiopian Israeli from the city of Ashkelon, crossed into northern Gaza from Zikim beach. He was spotted by IDF security cameras, but made it through the fence before troops could reach the scene. He was picked up by a Hamas patrol, and his family has not heard from him since.

Hisham al-Sayed, who wandered into Gaza in April 2015 and has been missing and believed held by Hamas ever since. (Army Radio)

In April 2015, Hisham al-Sayed, a Bedouin Israeli from the village of Hura in the Negev desert, entered the Strip near the Erez Crossing. According to his father, this was not his first time going into Gaza, but in this case he was stopped by Hamas and taken into their custody.

Over a year later, in July 2016, Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, a then-19-year-old Bedouin Israeli from the village of Hashem Zana in the northern Negev, was also seen crossing into Gaza.

His status is less clear than al-Sayed’s and Mengistu’s. The government does not include his name when discussing the issue of Hamas’s captives, and there have been reports that Israel’s security services suspect Abu Ghanima may not be held by the terrorist group, but rather may have joined it.

The Shin Bet security service acknowledged it had looked into the matter, but would not say what the investigation had found. The Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment on the issue entirely, ignoring multiple requests for comment.

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

What is known is that all three had histories of mental illness. Mengistu received an exemption from army service for his condition. Al-Sayed served in the militarily briefly before he was discharged. And Abu Ghanima’s family also told the Haaretz newspaper that the teenager had psychological problems and refused to work or go to school in the weeks leading up to his entrance into Gaza.

Earlier this summer, a fourth Israeli citizen, whose name has not been released to the public, was also seen entering Gaza, though it seems to have been out of a desire to reunite with his parents, who live there. (His mother was born in Israel, but his father is from Gaza, and the two eventually moved back to the coastal enclave.)

The public conversation

For approximately 10 months from the time Mengistu was first picked up by Hamas, media outlets were barred from reporting on the captives by the military censor, until a lawsuit by Israeli newspapers forced the government to clear it for publication on July 9, 2015.

In the time since, the families of Abu Ghanima and al-Sayed have not often spoken out publicly, at most responding when contacted by reporters.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (c) and Israel’s ambassador to the UN Danny Danon (2l) meet with the families of Oron Shaul, Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip on August 28, 2017. (Shlomi Amsalem)

Initially, al-Sayed’s father, Sha’ban, told the Palestinian Maan news outlet that he believed his son would be treated well, as “we are not dealing with an Israeli soldier, but with an Arab Muslim of the Negev Bedouin.”

Eventually, however, he became more critical of both Hamas, for holding his son captive, and of the Goldin, Shaul and Mengistu families, who he said were making the negotiations more difficult by speaking out. Sha’ban also expressed belief that Israel would do everything possible to bring back his son.

Meanwhile, Mengistu’s family and members of the Ethiopian community have tried to force a public conversation on the issue.

Last month, a rally was held in central Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, marking three years since Mengistu entered Gaza.

A few dozen people attended the protest — many fewer than the organizers had hoped. A handful of politicians also stopped by, but they did not speak to the crowd and left after a few minutes.

Dozens gather in Tel Aviv on September 3, 2017 for a rally in support of Abera Mengistu who has been held by the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip for three years. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“Abera has been in captivity for three years and this is how many people come,” one of the organizers, Imaye Taga, told The Times of Israel at the event, motioning to the small crowd, which took up approximately a quarter of the square.

Taga, a soccer player who was fined for wearing a protest shirt for Mengistu during a match last year, said he did not feel that the government “was doing everything it could to bring him back. Not at all.”

Israel has been involved in some negotiations for the return of the Israeli civilians and slain soldiers in Gaza, but these have been unsuccessful.

The issue has also been raised with many international officials, including the secretary general of the United Nations, the head of the Red Cross and Jason Greenblatt, the US special representative for international negotiations, who have all called on Hamas to release the Israeli captives.

President Reuven Rivlin (L) welcomes US President Donald Trump (C) during a welcome ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on May 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

However, when US President Donald Trump visited Israel, President Reuven Rivlin mentioned only Goldin and Shaul, prompting domestic criticism for his neglect of Mengistu and al-Sayed.

Some in Israel have attributed the relative apathy toward Mengistu’s fate to his dark skin color, compared to the overwhelming support for the return of Gilad Shalit, who has a far lighter complexion.

But race is not the only difference between Shalit and Mengistu, or al-Sayed, for that matter.

One possible difference: Mengistu’s parents come from a far lower socioeconomic level than Shalit’s. At one point, his father, Haili, had to live with family, as he could not afford rent. Because they moved to Israel at an older age, neither Menigstu’s father nor his mother, Agurnesh, speak Hebrew well, making televised addresses or radio interviews about their son nearly impossible.

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

Al-Sayed’s family is also from a poorer community and do not speak Hebrew particularly well, though his father has, on occasion, spoken on Israeli radio.

But in the minds of many Israelis, there is a substantive difference between a soldier who was captured by terrorists — even if his own actions made that possible, as in the case of Shalit — and a civilian who walked into Gaza of his own accord, regardless of his mental health.

Hamas’s new leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar (2nd R) and senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) sit next to the son of assassinated Hamas terrorist Mazen Faqha on March 27, 2017, in Gaza City. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

And for policymakers, looming over any negotiation for Israeli captives is the deeply contentious Shalit prisoner exchange, under which Israel released over 1,000 convicted Palestinian terrorists, including the current head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.

Dozens of prisoners released in the agreement have since been arrested again by Israeli security services for carrying out or planning to carry out new attacks, a fact that makes the possibility for a similar deal less likely.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has gone on record saying he will not make another “mistake” like the Shalit deal, and that any option besides Hamas’s total capitulation would require patience.

While unprepared to offer up the “carrot” of prisoner release, the government is also apparently not ready to use the “stick” and put excessive pressure on Hamas, as it does not want to risk the total collapse of the Gaza government and the chaos that could come after, according to an unnamed senior Israeli official, speaking to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in August.

For his part, the incoming Blum has said that he will “leave no stone unturned” in his efforts to secure the release of the Israelis in Gaza, though he has not specified what he is prepared to do.

“I will look into the issues and use my experience and the system’s capabilities to resolve this issue,” he told the 103FM radio station on Sunday. “This is a serious appointment, and I will approach it accordingly.”

The families of the Israelis being held in Gaza have thus far been appreciative, expressing support for the decision to name a replacement for Lotan, who left the position some two months ago.

In a statement, the Mengistu family said it expected Blum to “bring momentum to the effort to return Abera, and the other captives, home after more than three in Hamas imprisonment.”

Avi Issacharoff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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