JERUSALEM: Two Israeli citizens are being held in the Gaza Strip, at least one of them by the Palestinian militant Hamas group, Israeli authorities said Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he held Hamas responsible for the men’s well-being.
The announcement, made after months of secrecy, came after the Israeli military lifted a gag order Thursday on the two Israelis.
It raised memories of the case of Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in a cross-border raid and released five years later in a prisoner swap, as well as of the case of deadly kidnappings of three Israeli teens by Hamas militants in the West Bank last summer.
One of the two men, Avraham Mengistu, is an Israeli of Ethiopian descent in his late 20s who disappeared after he “independently” crossed the border fence into the Gaza Strip on Sept. 7 last year, nearly two weeks after the end of the Israel-Gaza war, said the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs. It gave no further details.
The second Israeli citizen being held in Gaza is a Bedouin Arab man from Israel’s Negev desert, according to the defense body, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT. There were no details as to how long he has been held in Gaza or how he got there or which group had him in custody. Bedouin make up a small group within Israel’s Arab minority, numbering about 180,000.
Thursday’s news did not trigger an uproar as the two previous two cases did — perhaps in part because the two missing Israelis were not violently captured but also a reflection of a tense but quiet working relationship that has emerged between Israel and Hamas since a devastating war a year ago.
Senior Israeli government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, said Israel had hoped keeping the affair quiet could lead to the men’s release.
COGAT said that “according to credible intelligence,” Mengistu is being held “against his will” by Hamas. It said “Israel has appealed (to) international and regional interlocutors to demand his immediate release and verify his well-being.”
“This is a humanitarian matter and I expect those holding him to treat him properly and to return him in full health,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in a statement.
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.
Netanyahu said Israel was working to free the men and that he had appointed a representative to deal with the matter. Defense officials identified the representative as Lior Lotan, a former Colonel and negotiator with an elite military unit. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the man’s identity to the media.
“Yesterday I spoke with the parents and siblings of Avraham Mengistu and I told them that … we have spared no effort to return him to Israel,” Netanyahu said, adding that he expected the international community to “issue a clear call” for the men’s release.
It was not clear why Israel decided to come forward with the news on Thursday. But Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, may have forced its hand by telling the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper late Tuesday that Israel had asked Hamas through a European mediator to release “two soldiers and two bodies.”
Israel says the bodies of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin have been in Hamas hands since the soldiers were killed in combat in Gaza last summer.
Mashaal said Hamas told the mediator that it would not hold negotiations with the “prisoners” Hamas has, nor would it release information about them or their condition, until Israel releases Palestinian prisoners rearrested after being freed in a 2011 high-profile prisoner swap, in which Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captive Israeli soldier Schalit.
Israeli media said Israel had turned to international channels to appeal for Mengistu’s release on humanitarian grounds because he was a civilian, not a soldier.
Israeli Channel 2 TV said Mengistu arrived at an Israeli beach on the Gaza border the evening of Sept. 7, left his bag behind and crossed into Gaza through a breach in the border fence apparently left from the movement of Israeli tanks during the Israel-Gaza war.
The 50-day war last summer between Israel and Hamas, a militant Islamic group sworn to Israel’s destruction, killed 2,200 Palestinians while Israel lost 73 people.
Though bitter enemies, both sides have largely honored a cease-fire that ended last year’s war — their third since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. While they have no formal relations, both sides tried to avoid another flare-up in fighting and also in recognition of a rising threat posed by extremist Salafist groups that draw inspiration from the Islamic State group.
“This is a difficult humanitarian matter, because my brother is not in the best of health,” said Ilan Mengistu to reporters. He called on Hamas to free him immediately, and asked Israel and the international community to exert pressure to lead to his release.
He did not elaborate on Mengistu’s health, but Israeli Channel 2 TV said Mengistu was depressed following the death of another brother.
Israeli Channel 10 broadcast an interview with a man it identified as Mengistu’s father. “They didn’t do anything,” Haili Mengistu said. “Where is my son?”
Itamar Shimoni, the mayor of Ashkelon where Avraham Mengistu is from, praised the family of five brothers and said local officials were supporting them.
“The family has been hurting for several months now. They are showing restraint. This is not a family that will go out demonstrating,” he said. “It’s not easy, it’s not easy.”