Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 20 on Thursday that two Israeli civilians who crossed the border into the Gaza Strip "are being held in a very cruel way by Hamas."
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The two Israelis, Abera Mengistu and Hisham Abu-Sayid, have been missing in Gaza since 2014 and 2015 respectively. Until now, it was assumed that they were being held by Hamas, but Israel had never said so explicitly.
Netanyahu added that "there are ceaseless efforts by me and those involved in this matter to bring back Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin, and also the citizens Mengistu and Abu-Sayid." A few hours before the interview, at a memorial ceremony held in Jerusalem for soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu spoke in a similar manner and said that Mengistu and Abu-Sayid "are being held in the Gaza Strip by a cruel enemy."
The bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed in 2014 during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, have also remained in Gaza.
Mengistu, a resident of Ashkelon, crossed the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip in September 2014, near the coast of Zikim. Abu-Sayid, a resident of Hura, did so in April 2015. The families of the two missing persons testified that they both suffer from psychological problems.
In June, Palestinian sources told Haaretz that Hamas was in advanced negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal with Israel, mediated by Egyptian intelligence officials and former Fatah chief Muhammad Dahlan. Kan news reported in July that an Israeli delegation was in Cairo dealing with the issue, and Israel confirmed that discussions were being held to reach a prisoner exchange deal.
Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh said earlier this month that the release of Palestinian prisoners was closer than ever. The remarks were interpreted as a hint that the talks were indeed progressing.
Sources close to the families of Palestinian prisoners have told Haaretz that information they have received does indeed indicate advances toward a deal. However, they stressed that the scope of the deal is unknown, because, they claimed, it is unclear what price Israel would be prepared to pay for the civilians that are currently being held and for the soldiers’ remains.
Human Rights Watch published a report in May calling on Hamas to confirm its detention of the two Israeli citizens, and to reveal details on their condition and release them.
According to Human Rights Watch, Hamas’ position is that "there are no civilians in Israel" and all "Israelis who enter Gaza are spies."