Missing in Gaza: What We Know So Far About the Strange Case of Avera Mengistu

How did he make it into Gaza? Is Hamas holding him? And why was the gag-order suddenly lifted? Here's everything we know – and don't – about Avera Mengistu.

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A crow sits on a barbwire fence on the Israel-Gaza border.
A crow sits on a barbwire fence on the Israel-Gaza border.Credit: AP

Avera Mengistu, a 28-year-old Ethiopian Israeli, has been missing since September 2014, when he left his home in southern Israel and crossed into the besieged costal enclave of Gaza Strip. Though missing for over 10 months, news of his disappearance shook the nation, which was left in the dark due to a court-imposed gag order placed on the case.

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Last Thursday, after a lengthy legal battle by Haaretz, the veil of secrecy was lifted and details of the case were made public, leading to claims of racism and mismanagement, as well as an outpouring of sympathy. Here is a look back at everything we know – and don't know – about Avera Mengistu:

Who are you Avera Mengistu?

Avraham Mengistu. Family photo/AP

Mengistu, 28, is an Israeli citizen of Ethiopian descent. He lived in Ashkelon's Shikmim neighborhood with his mother, and is one of seven brothers and sisters. Mengistu was known to local welfare authorities as suffering from psychological issues and it is possible he is also mentally challenged. He may have been drinking on the day of his disappearance and this might not have been the first time that he tried to enter Gaza.

Crossing into Gaza

On the fateful morning of September 7, 2014, days after Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire to end the 50-day summer war which saw Mengistu's hometown pummeled with rockets, he made the short walk to Zikim Beach and approached the border fence between Israel and Gaza. He then scaled the fence and cross into the Hamas-ruled enclave.

Gaza Strip – as seen from Israel's Zikim beach.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers on lookout saw him approach the fence carrying a bag, which aroused suspicion that he was a Palestinian trying to return to the Gaza Strip, and soldiers stationed in the area were rushed to the scene – but they were too late. Only when they opened the bag that Mengistu left behind and found a Hebrew bible did they understand he was an Israeli.

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Who's holding Mengistu?

There is little dispute about what happened to Mengistu immediately following his entrance into Gaza, however accounts about what happened afterwards vary.

Hamas admits to questioning him once he entered their territory – but they say that once they learned he wasn't a soldier they released him, and some even speculated he may have left the Strip, possibly crossing into Egypt through a tunnel. Israel labeled these claims as "intentional and organized lies."

Officially Israel has demanded Hamas release him, but a defense official admits it has no real information about Mengistu's condition, and that the defense establishment's working assumption is that he is alive.

Family of Israeli missing in Gaza urges Hamas to release him

Avraham Mengistu's family holds press conference. AP

Release efforts
Israel and Hamas have exchanged a number of messages on the matter, but every attempt to receive information from Hamas about Mengistu's whereabouts was fruitless. "As far as we know, he is being held in Gaza," a defense official told Haaretz.

This has not stopped his family from begging Hamas to free him and urge Israel to work towards his release. Hamas says it would not agree to any negotiations until Israel released prisoners affiliated with the group. However, Israel says it views the case as a non-military “humanitarian event” and should not be part of a prisoner exchange – indicating a grim fate for the missing youths.

Senior official: Israel won't free Palestinian prisoners for citizens who crossed into Gaza

Gag order

A blanket embargo was imposed on the story immediately following Mengistu's disappearance, which prohibited local media from covering the case or even citing foreign media reports about it. Since his disappearance, foreign media sources have published reports about an Israeli citizen being abducted by Hamas – but details were few.

Even Palestinian media has kept relatively mum, with the exception of reports about a mysterious 'black boxes' placed around Gaza by Hamas in what some say was a thinly-veiled reference to Mengistu.

#Hamas displays 'black box' at Rafah rally. What's inside? pic.twitter.com/zwKLJeySlE

In the first months after his disappearance, the story spread via the social networks – mainly Ethiopian immigrants' forums – and a protest developed on Facebook recently, but few outside of the community or media knew about his absence.

The embargo was only lifted Thursday by an Ashkelon court after a months-long legal battle led by Haaretz, represented by attorney Tal Lieblich. The logic behind the decision's timing is still unclear, but it comes as Israel marked a year since Operation Protective Edge.

Netanyahu's aide Lior Lotan faces the press following a meeting with the Mengistu family. Ilan Assayag

Racism meets security

The Mengistu case has opened up old wounds for Israelis while also agitating new one. Weary of uneven prisoner exchange deals for Israelis held captive by Gaza terror groups – like the deal that saw Sgt. Gilad Shalit go free – Mengistu's disappearance also exacerbated racial tensions between the government and Israel's Ethiopian community.

Roughly 20,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in the mid-80s and early-90s, and in a string of recent protests sparked by police brutality towards the community, many Ethiopian Israelis claimed institutional racism.

Mengistu relatives head to family press conference in Ashkelon. July 9, 2015.

Mengistu’s family has remained silent until now, at the request of the defense establishment. However, it eventually backed Haaretz's request to remove the gag order after the state’s attempts to bring Mengistu back came to naught. Mengistu's brother, Yalo, even claimed that if a white person had wandered into the Gaza Strip, the state's response would have been completely different. "It’s more than racism – I call it ‘anti-Blackism,’" he said.

Netanyahu representative threatens family of Israeli missing in Gaza

Claims of racism were further spurred by a report by Israel's Channel 10 which published a recording of a state official threatening the Mengistu family, telling them that should they go public and connect the story to recent protests by the community it "will leave him another year in Gaza."

Hamas seems to be aware of these tensions, recently tweeting as much:

Obviously, the real Israeli motto is "leave no 'Ashkenazi' man behind". #RacistIsrael

Political blackout

The gag order infuriated some Israeli lawmakers who claimed that had been left in the dark about the incident and at least five members of the previous Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said they didn't recall any discussion of the case.

Netanyahu: We're working to bring missing Israelis home from Gaza

Besides his aide, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to personally talk to or meet with the Mengistu family. Late Wednesday, just before the gag order was lifted, Netanyahu called the family and invited them for a meeting and they finally met on Friday, further raising claims of racism.

Netanyahu at the home of Avera Mengistu's family in Ashkelon, July 10, 2015. Ilan Assayag

Former Science Minister Jacob Perry said 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.

Missing in Gaza

Avera Mengistu’s disappearance is not the first time an Israeli has crossed the border into the Gaza Strip. For reasons that were unclear, in 2010 a resident of the Bedouin town of Hura jumped the fence in the northern Gaza Strip area. According to reports, the man was mentally unstable and had previously tried to reach the Gaza Strip, Egypt and Jordan. He was returned to Israel a few hours after he crossed.

At the end of 2009, Yakir Ben Melech, a 34-year-old resident of central Israel, was shot dead as he tried to cross into Gaza at the Erez border crossing. His relatives claimed he was mentally ill, and that he had repeatedly said he wanted to free IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. The latter had been abducted in 2006 and was being held captive by Hamas at the time.

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