Two Israelis have disappeared into the Gaza Strip over the last months, it was revealed on Thursday following the lifting of a long-standing gag order.
Little to nothing is known about either of their whereabouts: one, a 28-year-old of Ethiopian origin who climbed over the security fence with Gaza in September, was reportedly detained and questioned by Hamas and then released; the second, an Israeli Arab who crossed at the Erez Crossing in April, was apparently taken into Hamas custody and is still being held.
An Israeli court lifted reporting restrictions on the disappearance of the Israeli Ethiopian, Avera Mengistu, on Thursday morning, 10 months after he went missing, following a request from Haaretz.
The name of the Israeli Arab, who had apparently crossed the border with Gaza a number of times in the past, has not yet been released.
Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal told reporters in Doha on Wednesday that Israel had approached the organization via European mediators and requested the release of two prisoners and two bodies being held in Gaza.
Meshal said that Hamas could not respond or give details, and would not agree to any negotiations on the matter until Israel released the prisoners who had been freed in the Shalit deal and were rearrested following the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teens in the West Bank.
An Israeli defense official said Thursday that the defense establishment had no information about Mengistu's condition, but that its working assumption is that he is alive. "As far as we know, he is being held in Gaza," the official said.
The official said that in the first few days following Mengistu's disappearance, the defense establishment learned that he was being held by Hamas, and that he had been investigated. The Gaza leaders claimed they released him after learning that he was not a soldier, and that he made his way to Egypt.
The official said that these claims are "intentional and organized lies."
"Of course, such remarks are not acceptable – and that message has been transmitted to Hamas. They are responsible for his fate," the official said. He added that Hamas had kept the affair under blackout for two reasons: either to use him for negotiating purposes, or, "because something grave happened while he was being held."
Israel and Hamas have exchanged a number of messages on the matter via official representatives of foreign governments. According to the defense official, every attempt to receive information from Hamas about Mengistu's whereabouts were fruitless.
"If Hamas saw him as a bargaining chip, today's publication will have a positive effect," the official said. "If the explosion of this affair leads to dialogue with Hamas on the matter, that would mean progress, as Hamas is hiding the truth."
Regarding the second Israeli, the defense official only said that he had crossed into Jordan, Egypt and Gaza in the past, but did not release any more information.
The Mengistu family been critical of the state for its low-key response, saying the matter would have been handled differently if Israeli-Ethiopian Avera Mengistu were white.
The family has not met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he has not responded to a letter they sent after the incident, according to sources close to the family.
Israeli intelligence reportedly received information that Mengistu was in the hands of Hamas security forces soon after he crossed the border in early September, but his subsequent movements are unknown.
Attempts to communicate with Gazan authorities in order to obtain information on Mengistu's location and condition have proved unsuccessful.
The 28-year-old from Ashkelon entered the Gaza Strip via the city's Zikim Beach area. He was known to have suffered psychological problems in the past, and may have been drinking on the day of his disappearance.
Since his disappearance, foreign media sources have published reports about an Israeli citizen being abducted by Hamas. The most recent report – in a Palestinian media outlet and unconfirmed by the defense establishment – claimed that the body of an Ethiopian soldier was being held in the Gaza Strip. The story is seemingly based, inaccurately, on details connected to Mengistu.
A blanket embargo was imposed last year on local publication of the story, which prohibited even citing foreign media reports. The embargo was lifted by Ashkelon Magistrate's Court Judge Orit Hadad at the request of Haaretz, represented by attorney Tal Lieblich.
Mengistu’s family has remained silent until now, at the request of the defense establishment. However, it backed Haaretz's request to remove the gag order. The family made its move after the state’s attempts to bring Mengistu back came to naught.
Not his first time
On the day of Mengistu's disappearance, Israeli military surveillance cameras observed a man approaching the Gaza border fence on Zikim Beach. Female Israel Defense Forces soldiers on electronic lookout duty saw he was carrying a bag, which aroused suspicion that he was a Palestinian trying to return to the Gaza Strip.
IDF Southern Command soldiers stationed in the Gaza sector rushed to the scene. By the time they arrived, however, the man had managed to climb the fence and vanish into the Gaza Strip.
Mengistu's brother, Yalo, 32, told Haaretz that Avera left the bag he had been carrying on the beach, with a copy of the Hebrew Bible inside. According to Yalo, it was only when the soldiers opened the bag that they realized he was an Israeli citizen.
Following the incident, Israel contacted the Red Cross, as well as officials in the Gaza Strip via the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Major General Yoav (Poli) Mordechai. Israel informed them that a mentally challenged Israeli citizen had crossed the border into the Gaza Strip, and demanded his return to Israeli territory.
Israeli authorities cannot say with any certainty what has happened to Mengistu – whether he is alive or dead, in Gaza or even Egypt, to where he may have continued his journey. This is apparently not the first time he has tried to enter the Gaza Strip.
'More than racism'
Mengistu's family led calls to publicize his disappearance. “We are fed up. We want to go public with his story,” Yalo told Haaretz. “The day it happened, a person from the Shin Bet security service or the police called me and said my brother was in Gaza. I told my parents and my siblings, and that’s how we found out. But no one came to see us at our home.”
It was only after Yalo contacted then-MK Pnina Tamano-Shata (Yesh Atid) on Facebook that the family met with army representatives.
“Two weeks after I contacted Pnina, the commander of the Gaza division came to see us for the first time," recalled Yalo. "He told me they knew my brother was in Gaza, and that they have people who are keeping track of him and will bring him back – but that we should not tell people."
Yalo said 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. "I am one million percent certain that if he were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”
In one of the meetings between the Mengistus and the defense establishment, family members were shown footage from the security camera on the Ashkelon beach, showing how Avera crossed the border.
“In the film, you see him on the beach," related Yalo. "He is walking calmly, as though he knows what he is doing, striding across the sand until he comes to the fence – which is the only thing separating [Israel] from Gaza. He climbs over the fence and starts walking. On the Gaza side, you see two people in the water and another person [on the beach]. My brother starts walking, climbs a hill where there is a tent and three people, and he sits with them. End of story.”
According to the missing man’s brother, representatives of the IDF's Gaza division later took the family to the beach. “They told us that soldiers approached him and called out to him to stop, but that he didn’t agree and climbed over the fence. You don’t see the soldiers in the film.”
This version also contradicts the previous Southern Command story that soldiers were sent to stop Mengistu, but didn't reach him before he cleared the fence.
No Knesset discussion
Mengistu’s disappearance has apparently not been discussed officially in the Knesset. At least five members of the previous Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said they didn't recall any discussion of it. According to one committee member, “The committee plenum did not discuss it at all, to the best of my recollection – although sensitive discussions are usually held in the confidential subcommittees.”
Mengistu lived with his mother in Ashkelon's Shikmim neighborhood. According to acquaintances, the family has economic and housing problems, and receives welfare assistance from the local authority.
The parents, in their 50s and 60s, are divorced and live separately. The family endured another crisis several years ago when one of their sons died following a serious illness; there are seven other children in the family.
A while after Mengistu's disappearance, neighbors in the building where he lives told Haaretz he had left home several times before for two weeks or more, but added they had not seen him for several weeks. Mengistu’s father told Haaretz after his son’s disappearance, “We know the army is looking for him and we are relying on them.”
Protest on social media
In the first months after his disappearance, the story spread via the social networks – mainly Ethiopian immigrants' forums, who shared foreign media reports.
A protest has developed on Facebook recently, with users changing their profile photos to ones with a black background and Mengistu's name in white letters. Some have added a picture of Gilad Shalit.
Various posts have cited Gabriel Dawit, another young Israeli of Ethiopian origin whose body washed up in Lebanon after he drowned off the Haifa coast in January 2005. Dawit's body was eventually returned to Israel as part of a swap deal with Hezbollah in October 2007. His family was eventually compensated after the state failed to inform them that Dawit's body had been held by Hezbollah. No government representative attended Dawit’s funeral, which was held in Be’er Sheva.
Avera Mengistu’s disappearance is not the first time an Israeli has seemingly 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.