Lior Lotan, the chief negotiator for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the bodies of two fallen soldiers held by Hamas since last summer’s 50-day conflict, apologized late Thursday to the family of an Israeli citizen being held captive in Gaza, after a recording made public earlier in the day revealed that he had threatened the missing man’s relatives.
“I apologized to the [family] over the content and style of some of the things that were said during a long conversation,” Lotan said, according to the Ynet news site.
In the recording of their meeting Wednesday, Lotan was heard telling the family of 28-year-old Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli citizen of Ethiopian descent, that if any attempt was made to connect his fate with recent tensions between the Ethiopian community and the government, it would “cause [Mengistu] to stay in Gaza for another year.”
Members of the community held several protests in recent months against police brutality and discrimination they say is leveled specifically at Ethiopian-Israelis.
Lotan gave Mengistu’s family an ultimatum. “You have two options: You can point the finger at Hamas,” Lotan said, “or you can point the finger at Jerusalem and say, ‘You’re not okay. You let him cross the border [into Gaza]. You never responded to our letters.'”
“Choose what you want, but [you’ll] be responsible for the outcome,” he warned.
The conversation, held in a government office in the family’s hometown of Ashkelon, was recorded and released by Channel 10 news Thursday evening.
Netanyahu himself later Thursday renounced Lotan’s threats as well, but nevertheless praised his representative’s efforts to advance negotiations over Mengistu’s return.
“Those were utterances that should not have been said,” Netanyahu stated. “Lior [Lotan] works day and night as a volunteer to return our missing soldiers and civilians.”
The prime minister added that he expected the international community to spare no effort in helping to secure the release of the Israeli citizen from Hamas captivity.
During the meeting with Lotan, when a family member attempted to take notes during the meeting, the chief negotiator was heard in the recording telling them, “I don’t like this. My meetings are not documented.” And when Mengistu’s brother, Yalo, tried to intervene and smooth things over, Lotan snapped at him. “Don’t interrupt me, please. I am older than you. Let me finish and everything will be fine here,” he said.
In a telephone conversation with the family during the meeting, Netanyahu also warned them that publicizing information about Mengistu would “make it easier for Hamas to raise the price.” During the call, Mengistu’s father asked Netanyahu why his letters to the Prime Minister’s Office had been ignored. This question drew criticism from Lotan after the call had ended. “[Such questions] make me weaker with the prime minister,” Lotan told the family.
Later in the conversation, a member of the family asked what exactly is being done to return Avraham. Lotan refused to answer, because what they had done “with the prime minister was so egregious.”
Following the publication of the recording, a host of MKs expressed shock at the nature of the conversation between Lotan and Mengistu’s family, with several opposition members demanding that Netanyahu immediately remove Lotan from his position as chief negotiator.
“It is a disgrace to the prime minister and to the entire Israeli government which sends a PR specialist instead of offering true relief to this family, who for ten whole months have been going through the worst possible [situation],” said Meretz MK Ilan Gilon. “The Israeli government has failed not only in dealing with the affair on its own account, but also in treating and assisting the family itself.”
Yesh Atid MK Haim Yellin, who hails from a community bordering the Gaza Strip, also called on the prime minister to dismiss Lotan.
“Fire Lotan this very evening and apologize to the family,” Yellin urged Netanyahu in a letter. “Be a leader, lead, and show the Israeli nation that their prime minister knows how to take responsibility.”
He said that Lotan’s statements were redolent of “profound racism and a sense of elitism.”
Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich spoke out against Lotan’s conduct as well, adding that she found it hard to believe families of a different socio-economic status facing similar hardships would ever be treated with the same manner of disrespect as was heard in the recording.
“In Lior Lotan’s conversation with the anxiety-ridden and aching family of Avraham Mengistu, records of arrogance were broken over [people] he felt are too inferior to be treated with dignity and humanity,” Yachimovich said, according to the Walla news site. “It pains me to say it, but if Mengistu’s family were a white, well-to-do family he would not have dared to speak with such an intimidating, controlling tone.”
Netanyahu told the press earlier Thursday that “no effort is being spared” to return Mengistu and another Israeli being held by Hamas. The second hostage is an unnamed member of the Bedouin community in the Negev.
“We are working to secure the release of both Israelis who crossed the border fence into Gaza. We see Hamas as responsible for their well-being,” Netanyahu said in his first public remarks on the issue.
A gag order on the two hostages had been lifted earlier in the day, following a court petition by two Israeli media outlets.
The captivity of the two men is viewed by Israel as a humanitarian issue unrelated to the negotiations over the bodies of the two soldiers, which have been held by Hamas since last summer’s fighting, an official told Walla news.
Hamas has denied holding Mengistu hostage, but Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials made it clear Thursday that they held the group ultimately responsible for the pair’s safety.
The government will not include the two hostages in any agreement for the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, senior Israeli officials said Thursday night.
Hamas has previously used captives as leverage to urge Israel to release Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli jails. In 2011, Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, in four waves, in return for the return of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted and taken to Gaza in 2006.
Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who crossed the Gaza security fence in September of last year. Family members have described Mengistu as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.
A senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied reports that Hamas was holding Mengistu, and said he was released soon after the group’s interrogators determined that he was not a soldier. According to the official, Mengistu left the coastal strip via a tunnel to Sinai, in an attempt, they said, to reach Ethiopia.
The second hostage, from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April. According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.
The official said that since Hamas refuses to admit that it is holding the men, no negotiations are currently taking place.