A senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied claims that Hamas is holding an Israeli man captive, saying that he was released soon after interrogators determined that he was not a soldier.
Israeli officials rejected the claim as a lie and asserted that Avraham Mengistu, 28, is still being held by Hamas, after he sneaked over the border fence to Gaza for unknown reasons in September.
The Palestinian official, however, asserted that Mengistu was released by Hamas shortly after being picked up by the group and interrogated. After that he left the coastal strip via a tunnel to Sinai, the official said, apparently in an attempt to reach Ethiopia.
“He was in our [Hamas] hands. We interrogated and released him and then we lost track,” the Palestinian source said, as quoted by a senior Israeli negotiator involved in the case.
The Israeli official noted that the case was under a strict gag order for the past ten months in order not to harm Israel’s chances of retrieving him in secret, but that diplomatic initiatives to secure Mengistu’s release had ceased because “we lost all trace of him” and Hamas denied all attempts to prove it was holding Mengistu captive.
“Because Hamas refuses to admit that it is holding him, no negotiations are currently taking place,” the official said.
“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,” he said, adding that “it’s clear that he’s in Hamas’s hands in Gaza.”
According to the source, Hamas may be refusing to admit it’s holding Mengistu because of subsequent developments during his detention: “Maybe something happened to him, he [may have been] killed, or that the people responsible for this are hiding this from their leaders.”
Asked why Israel decided to release the gag order now, the security source noted that all ongoing efforts to get a response from Hamas yielded no fruit; that Hamas may believe that the continuing silence allows Mengistu’s kidnappers in Gaza to disperse and better hide; and that Mengistu’s family and the Israeli media had pressed forward with requests to go live with the story.
Responding to allegations that Mengistu’s case was mishandled because of his skin color and Ethiopian origins, the source responded that the case wouldn’t have been handled any differently if he were white.
On Wednesday, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal alluded to Mengistu and a second man when speaking about Israelis held by his organization, including the bodies of two soldiers killed in last summer’s war.
The second man was named by Israeli media as an Israeli citizen from the Bedouin town of Hura.
Mashaal’s comments followed several hints from Hamas that it was holding Mengistu and another live Israeli captive, 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.
A spokesman for Hamas, Salah Bardawil, declined comment. “We don’t have any information about it. Even if is true, we don’t have instructions to talk about it,” he said.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli negotiator involved in the talks, backed up claims made by the Israeli official, that despite repeated attempts by Israel to engage Hamas diplomatically, the group continues to deny it is holding Mengistu, leaving negotiations in a deadlock.
“They wanted to return him back to Israel; he refused to be sent back,” Baskin said, quoting Hamas, adding that spokesmen for the terror group said that “he was briefly detained, but let go when it became clear he had mental issues.”
“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.
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 Palestinian security prisoners 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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.