An overwhelmed Mengistu family reacted with shock and disbelief on Monday after Hamas released what appeared to be the first piece of video footage of their son and brother Avera since he wandered into Gaza and was taken captive by the terror group more than eight years ago.
In a short clip aired by the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group on Monday, a man said to be Mengistu is seen seated, wearing a button-down shirt, fidgeting and crossing his arms as he recites a short message in a low voice.
“I am the captive Avera Mengistu. For how much longer will I remain in captivity with my friends,” he is heard mumbling before lamenting the Israeli government’s inaction in bringing about his return in broken Hebrew.
Avera’s mother Agurnesh Mengistu told Channel 12 in Amharic that the man in the video looked like her son, as Israeli authorities scrambled to verify the footage.
“That’s his forehead, his face, it’s him… He’s a little heavier, but he still looks like himself,” she said.
Avera’s brother Ilan told the network, “Right now, there are really many elements that [show] it’s him… In our heads, we’re taking it in, though the heart doesn’t believe it.”
“Slowly, slowly, the picture is clarifying — his features, his movements, are truly strengthening the family’s feeling that it’s him,” he said.
Another one of Avera’s brothers, Yallo, told Channel 12, “I’m excited and scared at the same time. He looks like Avera, but on the other hand, it’s not 100% Avera.”
“There’s a similarity, but… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t tell you for sure that it’s him.”
A source in the security establishment told the network that the video appears authentic but that intelligence agencies were still working to determine when it was filmed.
In September 2014, Mengistu crossed into northern Gaza from Zikim beach. After he entered the coastal enclave, members of Hamas arrested him. His family said he suffers from mental instability.
He is one of two Israeli men being held by the terror group, alongside Hisham al-Sayed, another civilian who entered the Strip on his own. Hamas is also holding the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, two soldiers killed during Israel’s war with Gaza-based fighters in the summer of 2014.
Israeli authorities have been quietly engaged in fruitless negotiations for their release for years.
In a statement, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government was working to bring its captives home. A separate statement of Likud talking points sent out to reporters said the video showed that Hamas was “frustrated and under pressure.”
A senior diplomatic source told Channel 12 news Monday that Israel and Hamas had been nearing an agreement over the captives under the previous government, thanks to a moderate approach taken by then-prime minister Yair Lapid.
The network cited a senior diplomatic official who said that a proposal on the table would have seen the Israeli captives released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israeli jails, the source said
The number of prisoners would fall well short of the 1,027 that Israel freed in a previous swap for IDF captive Gilad Shalit in 2011, and would mostly comprise women, the elderly or sick, with only a few defined as high-value security prisoners, the diplomatic source said.
However, a list of prisoners demanded by Hamas published by the Kan public broadcaster included a number of detainees held for deadly attacks.
The list includes Hassan Salameh, the former head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza who was responsible for two bombings targeting the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem in 1996; Ibrahim Hamed, one of the leaders of Hamas’s military wing in the West Bank who was involved in bombings in Jerusalem and Rishon Lezion in 2002; Abdullah Barghouti, a former senior explosives engineer for Hamas during the Second Intifada who was given 67 life sentences — more than any other Palestinian security prisoner in Israeli history; and Abbas a-Sayed, who planned the Passover bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya in 2002 which killed 30 people, the deadliest attack of the Second Intifada.
Kan, which did not cite any sources behind the list, said there was zero chance Israel would agree to release such prisoners.
Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said it was releasing the video of Mengistu as a message to outgoing military chief Aviv Kohavi and his successor, Herzi Halevi, who took over as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff on Monday.