Netanyahu: We're Working to Bring Missing Israelis Home From Gaza

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Avera Mengistu, right, at a celebration. Photo from Avera Mengistu's Facebook page.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel was actively seeking the return of two citizens who crossed into the Gaza Strip, and said Jerusalem holds Hamas responsible for their well-being.

The whereabouts and condition of the two are unknown. 28-year-old Ethiopian Israeli Avera Mengistu, who climbed over the security fence with Gaza in September, was reportedly detained and questioned by Hamas and then released – but the defense establishment believes he is still in the custody of the Gaza rulers; the second, an Israeli Arab who crossed at the Erez Crossing in April, was apparently taken into Hamas custody and is still being held.

"We are working to return the two Israelis who crossed the fence into Gaza," Netanyahu said. "We see Hamas as being responsible for their well-being. I have appointed a representative to coordinate all of the activities in this matter, as well as contact with the families."

"I spoke with the parents of Avraham (Avera) Mengistu yesterday, and told them that since the moment we were informed of the incident, we have done everything we can to bring him back to Israel. We have arranged to meet soon," Netanyahu said, adding: "I call on the international community, who expresses its concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, to issue a clear call for the release and return of these citizens."

Netanyahu's political-security cabinet was not updated at all about the disappearance of Mengistu, ministers told Haaretz on Thursday.

Senior ministers in the current cabinet, as well as those who served in the previous government, said that no discussion was raised in the cabinet meetings about the matter - including over the last few days, when it was clear that the long-standing gag order on the matter would be imminently lifted.

Former Science Minister Jacob Perry, who served as an observer in the previous government's political-security cabinet and in the past as Shin Bet Chief, told Army Radio that he heard about the matter only toward the end of his term as minister – in an update from former Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, chairwoman of the lobby for the Ethiopian Israeli community.

Even opposition chief MK Isaac Herzog received no briefing on the matter from Netanyahu during their monthly meetings. He then heard about it by chance from members of the Ethiopian community, and raised it in conversation with the prime minister.

The Prime Minister's Office rejected the cabinet's criticism. "Since this is a subject that didn't require a cabinet decision, the cabinet ministers were not briefed," Netanyahu's office said.

Over the last 10 months, the prime minister didn't speak or meet with the Mengistu family, despite their attempts to make contact. Late Wednesday, just before the gag order was lifted, Netanyahu called the family and invited them for a meeting.

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said that in November 2014, two months after Mengistu's disappearance, Netanyahu met with Tamano-Shato. The government's coordinator for hostages and missing persons, Lior Lotan, also took part in the meeting. The PMO said that the meeting was scheduled immediately after the Mengistu family turned to Tamano-Shata for help.

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