One of the country’s top defense officials said he “had no idea” about the two Israeli men being held captive In Gaza, one of them since September, until the incident was released for publication in Israeli media Thursday morning.
Speaking to Israeli radio network Radio103, Knesset Defense Committee Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi said information about the affair was reported to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee “a long time ago,” but was regarded simply as a strange but unimportant episode.
Other officials also complained Wednesday of being left in the dark on the case.
Following the lifting of the gag order, the man in Gaza since September was named as Avraham Mengistu, 28, of Ashkelon.
Israeli officials said Mengistu is being held by Hamas and is alive. Defense officials also confirmed a second Israeli man is being held in Gaza.
“I was astounded. I read about it in [Israeli news site] Ynet this morning, I called the committee manager, I asked him whether the committee was informed,” Hanegbi said, adding that he had not heard about the incident since he started to serve as committee chairman over a month ago.
He added that he had “not yet looked into” the second captive, a member of Israel’s Bedouin community.
“I assume it had been reported to the subcommittee,” he said, apparently referring to the Subcommittee for Foreign Policy, Public Relations, and the Political Struggle. He added: “Apparently marketing for Gaza’s tourism industry is very attractive – the fact is that two young Israelis decided to immigrate to Gaza, for whatever reason. We’ll look into it.”
Echoing Hanegbi, former minister and security cabinet member Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) told Army Radio the previous government’s cabinet was never informed of the fact that an Israeli was being held captive in Gaza.
Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, added that he had only heard about it through former Knesset member Pnina Tamanu-Shata, who, like Mengistu, is of Ethiopian descent.
According to Tamanu-Shata, many ministers and MKs were aware of Mengistu’s disappearance but did nothing.
“I think the government mishandled the case,” she told the Haaretz daily.
“It is a very sad case, and it should be clear it will carry serious implications for the Israeli-Ethiopian community, who see how their children are treated,” Tamanu-Shata said.
Several other cabinet members during the previous government confirmed to Haaretz that they were never officially informed of the incident and that the matter was never discussed.
Last week, Mengistu’s family visited the Knesset and met Meretz MK Ilan Gilon. The family members brought along the backpack Mengistu had been carrying with him the day he disappeared.
“I approached the security minister on several different occasions, and received nothing but vague and evasive answers,” Gilon wrote on Facebook Thursday. “This entire fiasco was being managed in the shadows for the last ten months.”
Meanwhile, Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni told Radio103 that Mengistu’s crossing into Gaza was the result of the plight of the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
In recent months, activists have been demonstrating against what they say is long-standing police brutality and discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community, sparked by a video in April that showed a policeman and a police volunteer assaulting Ethiopian-Israeli soldier Damas Pakada in Holon.
Mengistu was born in Ethiopia in 1986. According to a report in Ynet News, he tended to leave his house for extended periods of time without informing his family and was reported lost at least three times.
An Israeli security official described both Mengistu and the second captive as having some psychological issues.
Avi Issacharoff, Joshua Davidovich, and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.