Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the family of Avera Mengistu, the Israeli of Ethiopian descent who has been missing in Gaza for the past 10 months, in Ashkelon on Friday. This was Netanyahu's first in-person visit since Mengistu went missing.
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“We’re doing everything we can in order to return him to Israel, and we're maintaining contact with the family of another captive Israeli with the aim of getting him back," Netanyahu said following the visit. "We're facing a very cynical and cruel foe who rejects the humanitarian obligation of returning innocent civilians to their country. We won’t give up and we’ll do everything required in order to return these civilians to their country.”
In a statement released following the visit, the family said that they have been briefed on the circumstances of Avera's disappearance and "the current situation." The family asked the public to "continue exercising restraint."
Netanyahu's coordinator for hostages and missing persons, Col. (Res.) Lior Lotan, also stopped by the Megistu's home on Friday to apologize for threatening the family not to criticize the way the government is handling the affair. A recording of the exchange that took place last Wednesday was released by Channel 10.
Lotan said during his visit that “over the last few months I’ve had constant and positive contact with the family. At our last meeting I said things that were inappropriate, and I have a deep-felt need to apologize.”
Lior Lotan visits Avera Mengistu's family in Ashkelon. (Ilan Assayag)
He added that the words spoken “do not reflect my conduct, my values or my way of thinking. Moreover, they certainly don’t reflect the views of the prime minister or the spirit in which he wants this mission to proceed, as was obvious from his conversation with the family. I want to promise the family today that I will continue to strive to complete our mission and return Avera home to his family safe and sound.”
Earlier Friday, Netanyahu blasted Lotan's comments, saying they "should not have been said."
"Lior [Lotan] is working day and night to bring back our missing soldiers and citizens," the prime minister said in reference to Mengistu, an Israeli Arab presumed missing and the body of at least one soldier that remained in the costal enclave after last summer's Operation Protective Edge ended.
Prior to Friday's visit, Lotan had called the family to apologize for the "content and tone of some of the things I said during what was a long conversation."
The Mengistu family. (IlanAssayag)
After a gag order was lifted on Thursday, it was revealed that Mengistu, a 28-year-old of Ethiopian descent, had climbed over the security fence into the Strip at an Ashkelon beach last September. He was reportedly detained and questioned by Hamas last year, and then released. Another man also missing in Gaza, an Israeli Bedouin from the Negev who crossed at the Erez crossing in April, was apparently taken into Hamas custody and is still being held.
Channel 10 reported that during the meeting between Lotan and the family last Wednesday, Netanyahu spoke with the family on the phone. A representative of the family asked the prime minister why he was 'ignoring' the issue of their missing relative, despite the fact that many letters had been sent to him regarding the missing Israeli over the past eight months. According to the report, Netanyahu replied that he was involved in every detail of the case, and said that advertising the case may hamper the negotiations over Mengistu's release. Netanyahu urged the family not to lose hope, and the family's representative thanked the prime minister.
Following the telephone conversation, Lotan told the family that they have two options: "One is to point a finger at Hamas and say: ‘You are holding Avera, you are responsible for his fate, give him back to us and we want to know he is alive.’ That is one possibility. You have another possibility, to point a finger at Jerusalem instead of Hamas and say: ‘You are no good, you let him cross over, you didn’t answer our letters.’ You choose. I have an opinion on this – what will help Israel, what will help Avera and what will help Hamas. But you choose and you will be responsible for the outcome.”