UNHRC mum on developments

Netanyahu says Gaza captive Mengistu ‘is alive,’ Hamas responsible for his fate

A day after terror group airs undated footage apparently showing Israeli held in Strip since 2014, PM appears to confirm its authenticity

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said Avera Mengistu, a captive Israeli civilian held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas for more than eight years, “is alive,” after the terror group aired apparent recent footage of him a day earlier.

“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 after receiving a briefing from Shin Bet officials in the northern West Bank.

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

Mengistu is one of two Israeli men being held by the terror group, 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.

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.

In the short clip, 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,” he is heard mumbling in broken Hebrew before lamenting the Israeli government’s inaction in bringing about his return.

Avera Mengistu. (Courtesy)

Until Netanyahu’s comments, Israel publicly maintained its position that it cannot verify if the person in the clip really is the hostage held in the Gaza Strip. Mengistu’s own family also had some doubts about it.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said earlier Tuesday 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 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.

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.

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.

In June 2022, Hamas published a first video of the second Israeli captive, 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 Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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