'We Will Not Back Down'

Fighting Despair, Family of Israeli Civilian Allegedly Held in Gaza Turns to International Community

Abera Mengistu, an Israeli man with a mental disability, walked into Gaza in 2014. 'Since her son disappeared, her life has become a nightmare,' said Mengistu's brother of his mother

Shachar Peled
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Mengistu's family members and supporters protest in Ashkelon on April 12, 2017
Mengistu's family members and supporters protest in Ashkelon on April 12, 2017Credit: Ilan Assayag
Shachar Peled

The family of Abera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen who has been held in Gaza for over than three years, called on the UN to assist in his release.

"We are doing everything in our hands so that Abera's humanitarian situation will be raised in every organization and country that deals with it, we will not back down," Ilan Mengistu, Abera's brother, told Haaretz.

Abera Mengistu, 31, a man with a mental disability, crossed the border into Gaza on September 2014, following his older brother’s death. The Mengistu family, of Ethiopian origin and low socioeconomic background, has since struggled to get attention to their plight and rouse efforts to bring back their son.

Mengitsu's family with Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon in New York, Nov 20, 2017
Mengitsu's family with Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon in New York, Nov 20, 2017Credit: Shachar Peled

With the help of a small group of volunteers, they have been organizing events in Israel calling for his release, and in the past year have been boosting efforts to raise awareness in the international community.

On their two-week trip to the U.S. with an official Israeli delegation, they have traveled between meetings and speaking events, from Los Angeles to Washington DC. They met with members of Congress, Jewish organizations and met with Jason Greenblatt, President Trump's special representative for international negotiations, at the White House.

On Monday at UN headquarters in New York, the Mengistu family joined Israeli ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, and requested a special UN discussion on the issue. No official deliberation had been set, however, but Dannon emphasized the importance of applying more pressure on the matter. "It seeps in and creates an impact. It doesn't mean that tomorrow morning we will have information, but in the long run it leaves an impact," Dannon said.

In his plea at the UN, Ilan Mengistu called for an end to their personal tragedy. “Abera is a civilian. He never served in the military, he never fought anyone,” he said. Hamas is “playing a cynical and cruel game with a life of a man and is acting in defiance of all human decency.”

Mengistu’s mother, Agernesh, stood silently beside her son and could not hold back tears. “Since her son disappeared, her life has become a nightmare,” Ilan Mengistu said.

Despite not speaking a word of English or Hebrew, Agernesh Mengistu decided she had to come all the way across the Atlantic to make her son’s voice would be heard.

She doesn't believe he'll be released “until the door opens and he walks in” she said through an interpreter. “I came here in hopes that this campaign will bear fruit. It’s been over three years and it hasn’t been easy.”

Yonit Tlayenesh Fenta, a relative leading the volunteer movement to free Abera, said they were encouraged by the meetings, but are now looking forward to see concrete results. “We understand that this is a first step and people need more motivation to work,” she said. “Now that we realize the importance of our presence, we hope to motivate them to take action.”

The Mengistus had previously claimed that the slow process of getting Abera released was “more than racism.” A year into his captivity, another of Abera's brothers, Yalo Mengistu, said that he is “one million percent certain that if [Abera] were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”

Following the allegation, Hamas took a jab at the Israeli government and tweeted, "Obviously, the real Israeli motto is 'leave no Ashkenazi man behind,'" referring to the overwhelming efforts and public awareness campaigns that followed the capture of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Last year, Arabic media reported that Hamas was demanding the release of 60 Palestinian prisoners -- who were rearrested after being liberated as part of the Shalit deal -- in exchange for the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, as well as Mengistu and another civilian, Hisham al-Sayed, allegedly held by the terror group.

However, no deal has been made thus far and the family says it continues to hold the Israeli government responsible. “The government knows they have a moral obligation to bring back my brother,” Ilan Mengistu said. “Right now we are focusing on the international community and seizing the opportunity to reach out to human rights organizations for help.”

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