Two Israeli men are being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, including one who was captured in the Strip in September after he sneaked over the border fence for unknown reasons, it was cleared for publication Thursday.
The man who has been in Gaza since September was named as Avraham Mengistu, 28, of Ashkelon. The gag order on his case was lifted Thursday morning following a lawsuit from Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth. The name of the second man, a Bedouin who also apparently crossed the border of his own volition, was not released.
Ethiopian-born Israeli Mengistu is alive and being kept by Hamas in Gaza, an Israeli security source said Thursday in a briefing with reporters. The source said no negotiations were currently taking place for his release.
An official said Israel does not consider the Israeli to be a captive, and that Israel was treating the matter as a humanitarian issue. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Hamas denies holding Mengistu, but the Israeli sources said this was because the Islamist group is seeking to avoid responsibility for his fate.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin said Israel was certain both men were in Gaza. “We have no doubt that they’re in Gaza. They have not gone anywhere elese,” Rivlin said Thursday morning, adding that Israel was seeking assistance for their speedy return as an act of “basic humanity.”
Defense officials from the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories confirmed the second Israeli man was also being held in Gaza.
This second man was described as a young man from the Arab community. The security source said he had light psychological issues and had a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.
He comes from the Bedouin town of Hura and crossed over into Gaza about three months ago near hothouses belonging to Kibbutz Erez along the border, Ynet news reported.
On Wednesday, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal alluded to Mengistu and the second man when speaking about Israelis held by his organization, including the bodies of two soldiers killed in last summer’s war.
Mashaal’s comments followed several hints from Hamas that it was holding Mengistu.
A spokesman for Hamas, Salah Bardawil, declined further comment. “We don’t have any information about it. Even if is true, we don’t have instructions to talk about it,” he said.
An Israeli negotiator told The Times of Israel that Hamas claims it let Mengistu go, and that the group purports to believe he is no longer in Gaza but has sneaked into Sinai.
The Israeli security source rejected claims made by Hamas officials that they briefly detained Mengistu but released him and that he has made his way to Ethiopia via Egypt.
Since Hamas refuses to admit that it is holding him, no negotiations are currently taking place, the source said.
According to Israeli sources cited in Hebrew media, Mengistu was last seen slipping through a border fence next to Zikim beach in southern Israel on the night of September 7.
The breach in the fence had been left by tanks maneuvering in the area during the war with Hamas-led fighters in Gaza which had ended about a week earlier.
Israeli troops in the area who spotted him believed him to be a Palestinian returning to the territory and, seeing he was unarmed, did not shoot at him.
After entering the Strip, Mengistu walked south where he met with Gazan fisherman.
It was not clear why he entered the Strip. His brother Yalo told Haaretz he left a bag on the beach containing a Bible.
The Israeli security source said Mengistu suffered from mental issues and had family problems.
Mengistu’s family was told by Israeli authorities to keep the incident under wraps while officials attempted to negotiate his release. After diplomatic channels proved fruitless, the family demanded the gag order be lifted.
However, sources in Jerusalem said family members had previously asked to keep the keep the issue secret after a report came out in Jordanian media.
“We chose not to publicize this out of the consideration that there are better chances to return him from Hamas’s hands to Israel as long as Hamas hasn’t turned him into an asset yet,” the security source said.
He added that Israel believed publicizing the issue could help start stalled negotiations and force those in Hamas keeping secrets to open up.
Channel 2 TV said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been in touch with Mengistu’s parents and that Lior Lotan, a retired Israeli army colonel, was handling negotiations to return Mengisto to Israel.
The security source said Israeli authorities were constantly in contact with Mengistu’s family. The family has met with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and President Rivlin and spoke with Netanyahu, the source said, defending efforts after complaints emerged about the government’s handling of the affair.
“Israel is continuing efforts to bring this incident to a close and bring home the Israeli citizen,” COGAT, which acts as a liaison between the Israeli military and the Palestinian population, said in a statement.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli negotiator involved in the talks for Mengistu, said Hamas officials told him the man was briefly detained by the group but let go when it became clear he had mental issues.
“They wanted to return him back to Israel; he refused to be sent back,” Baskin said, quoting Hamas.
The Hamas officials said they let Mengistu go and believe he fled into the Sinai Peninsula via a tunnel, according to Baskin.
“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 has been involved in talks with Mashaal for months to secure Mengistu’s release.
The Israeli security source called the Hamas claims a total lie, and said the group could be using subterfuge to cover up the fact that he was killed.
Mengistu was born in Ethiopia in 1986. According to a report in Ynet News, he tended to leave his house for extended periods of time without informing his family and was reported lost at least three times.
He is known to Ashkelon’s welfare officials.
His parents, in their 50s and 60s, are divorced. The family already suffered the death of a son, who died of an illness.
Israeli Channel 10 broadcast an interview with a man it identified as Mengisto’s father, holding up a statement critical of Israeli authorities.
Haili Mangisto said he contacted the IDF, who said they would take care of the issue but had dropped the ball.
“They didn’t do anything,” he said. “Where is my son?”
Despite its proximity to Gaza, Zikim is a public beach open to all swimmers. It was the scene of an attempted Hamas infiltration during last summer’s conflict, in which four frogmen attacked a military base from the beach.
Mashaal on Wednesday hinted that his organization was holding two live Israeli captives, in addition to the bodies of two IDF soldiers killed during last summer’s 50-day war.
Israeli officials have confirmed that the group holds the remains of deceased IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul and that they have been trying to negotiate for their release, along with Mengistu.
Israeli officials have been wary of Hamas attempting to capture Israelis to use as bargaining chips since the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from captivity in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians being held by Israel.
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.
Baskin dismissed Mashaal’s claim as a “negotiating position.”
In October last year, Mohammed Nazzal, a senior figure in Hamas’s political wing, stressed that his group would demand that Israel “pay a price” for every bit of information regarding the whereabouts of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul’s remains. Nazzal did not indicate what the group would demand in exchange for such information.
Goldin and Shaul were killed in separate incidents during fighting in Gaza during the summer’s 50-day military campaign. They were both declared dead based on evidence the army acquired, but their bodies were never recovered by Israel.
Avi Issacharoff, Joshua Davidovich, Daniel Bernstein, Adiv Sterman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.