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Mom of Gaza captive Mengistu: ‘His voice is different, I want to look into his eyes’

After terror group airs undated footage apparently showing Israeli held in Strip since 2014, Agurnesh Mengistu says son looks the same; Foreign Ministry urges pope, UN to act

An undated video published by Hamas on January 16, 2023, purportedly of Israeli captive Avera Mengistu. (Screenshot)
An undated video published by Hamas on January 16, 2023, purportedly of Israeli captive Avera Mengistu. (Screenshot)

The mother of Avera Mengistu, an Israeli civilian held captive in the Gaza Strip by Hamas for more than eight years, said Tuesday that she wanted to see her son again, and that while footage released the day before appeared to show him, his voice sounded different.

In a short clip aired by the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group, a man said to be Mengistu was seen seated, wearing a button-down shirt, fidgeting and crossing his arms as he recited a short message in a low voice. In response to the video, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Mengistu “is alive.”

Mengistu is one of two Israeli men being held by Hamas, alongside the remains of two soldiers killed during Israel’s war with Hamas in the summer of 2014. Israeli authorities have been quietly engaged in fruitless negotiations for their release for years.

“It’s not my son’s voice, I know his voice. I raised my son. I recognize that part of the head,” Agurnesh Mengistu told Channel 12 news in Amharic. “They showed me the video on the phone, several people showed it to me from all kinds of places. It’s his head but the voice is different.”

“It’s not easy after all these years. I raised him. When I was in the US with the Americans — I was there several times — I saw everything, but I don’t know. My children and I are sad,” said Mengistu, whose family has campaigned for Avera’s release, raising awareness of their cause on the international stage.

She said Netanyahu had always told her not to lose hope that she would see her son again.

“[Netanyahu] told me, ‘we talked to the Red Cross and they said he is alive, he is alive, he is alive.’ He is the one who always told me not to worry,” Agurnesh Mengistu said. “I want my son, I want to be allowed to see my son, to look into his eyes and see him.”

The family had originally had some doubts the man in the video was Mengistu.

Agurnesh Mengistu in an interview with Channel 12 news aired January 17, 2023 (Screen grab)

In the clip, Mengistu introduced himself before lamenting in broken Hebrew the Israeli government’s inaction to bring about his return.

“I am the captive Avera Mengistu. For how much longer will I remain in captivity with my friends,” he mumbled.

The Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it sent a letter to leaders of prominent international bodies, including the Vatican and United Nations, asking them to “urgently” act for the release of the Israeli civilians and the remains of IDF soldiers held in Gaza.

The letter was sent to Pope Francis, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Red Cross President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other senior UN officials.

The ministry urged the international leaders to condemn Hamas, noting that Mengistu has been held for over eight years “in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, without providing information about his health condition and without providing any way for him to contact his family or receive visits by the Red Cross.”

The Foreign Ministry statement noted that Francis HAD met last month with the families of the Israeli captives and promised to help return them.

The UN Human Rights Council remained mum on Tuesday after the publication of the footage by Hamas. The UNHRC and its special rapporteur tasked with investigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not respond to a Times of Israel requests for comment on the incident.

UN officials regularly criticize Israel for its actions against Palestinians. Israel and the US accuse the world body in New York, and the UNHRC in Geneva, of bias against the Jewish state.

International law forbids taking civilians captive, and bars using any prisoners for propaganda purposes.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that work would continue with the aim of securing Mengistu’s release.

“Israel does not stop its efforts to return Avera Mengistu and the rest of our captives and missing persons. Yesterday we received another confirmation of what we knew all along — that Avera is alive,” Netanyahu said.

“This is a young man, not in good health, and responsibility for his fate rests entirely with Hamas,” he added.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said Tuesday that the video was made in “recent weeks” and that Israel “will not see its captured soldiers until there is a decent exchange” for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said on Monday it was releasing the video as a message to outgoing military chief Aviv Kohavi and his successor Herzi Halevi.

File: Families of Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed hold a press conference calling for the release of the two Israeli citizens from Hamas captivity, on September 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Channel 13 news, citing Palestinian sources, said Monday that Hamas was expected to send messages to Israel via Egypt soon expressing interest in renewing negotiations over the prisoners. The network assessed that the release of the video indicates that Hamas is eager for a prisoner exchange deal, as in the past it has demanded a price from Israel for any information at all about captives.

Mengistu’s family has not seen any photos or videos of him since he crossed over into Gaza more than eight years ago. An audio file released by Hamas in June 2021 of an unidentified person who self-identifies as “an Israeli soldier” was thought to be a recording of Mengistu.

Hamas has repeatedly falsely referred to Mengistu and the second captive, Hisham al-Sayed, as soldiers. Mengistu was never drafted to the military after being found “not medically fit,” and al-Sayed volunteered in the IDF for three months in 2008 before being discharged after being found “incompatible for service,” according to military documents. The pair were not soldiers when they were captured by Hamas.

The two entered the Strip of their own accord In 2014 and 2015, respectively, and their families say they suffer from mental illness.

In June 2022, Hamas published a first video of al-Sayed, a Bedouin Israeli.

Aside from the two civilians, Hamas is also holding the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed during a 50-day conflict with the terror group in the summer of 2014.

Israelis attend a rally calling for the return of the remains of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin from Hamas captives, outside the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on July 8, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel and Hamas have held indirect talks in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal. A similar deal that released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity saw 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners released, many of them convicted terrorists.

Egyptian intelligence, which maintains close ties to both Israel and Hamas, often serves as a key intermediary.

Hamas is considered highly unlikely to concede on the matter of the mass release of Palestinian security prisoners, a very contentious move that no Israeli government is likely to approve again.

The 2011 exchange to secure the release of Shalit was deeply controversial, with many in Israel’s security establishment at the time calling it lopsided in Hamas’s favor. Many of the prisoners released later returned to terror — including Yahya Sinwar, who now serves as Hamas’s Gaza governor.

Luke Tress and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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