Family of Israeli held in Gaza stages protest outside prison

First demonstration in support of Avraham Mengistu aimed to coincide with visits by Palestinian families to detainees being held by Israel

The brother of Avraham Mengistu speaks with the media at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was been lifted over Mengistu's disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The brother of Avraham Mengistu speaks with the media at their home in Ashkelon, after a gag order was been lifted over Mengistu’s disappearance in the Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Pime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday afternoon visited the Ashkelon family home of Ethiopian-Israeli Avraham Mengistu, 28, who is being held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It was the prime minister’s first visit to the family since their son disappeared into the Palestinian enclave 10 months ago.

“We are doing everything in our ability to return Avra [short for Avraham] to Israel, just as we are in contact with the family of the other Israeli citizen in order to bring him back to Israel as well,” Netanyahu said in reference to a second Israeli citizen, as yet unnamed, who is also in the Strip.

“We will not slacken and we will do everything necessary in order to bring these citizens back home,” he said.

“We face a very cynical and cruel enemy that denies the basic humanitarian obligation to send innocent citizens back to their country,” Netanyahu said after the visit.

Netanyahu’s visit followed a public uproar over Israel’s handling of the case, after a recording of the prime minister’s chief negotiator appearing to threaten the family was aired on Channel 10 on Thursday evening.

Lior Lotan, the PM’s rep, also arrived Friday afternoon to apologize in person for the way the conversation was handled.

Lior Lotan speaking to Channel 2 television in 2011. (screen capture:Channel 2)
Lior Lotan. (screen capture:Channel 2)

Lior Lotan. (screen capture:Channel 2)
Lior Lotan. (screen capture:Channel 2)

“I came here to meet with the Mengistu family and apologize to them. In our last meeting, things were said by me which should not have been said. Therefore, I felt a deep need to apologize [in person] to the family,” Lotan told reporters outside the home.

“The things that were said do not reflect my values, my thoughts or my conduct. And even more so, they do not reflect the opinion of the prime minister,” he said.

“I want to promise the family today that I will continue to act in every way possible and at all times together with the family and the establishment to complete the assignment and bring Avraham home as soon as possible,” he added.

In the recording of their meeting Wednesday, Lotan was heard telling the family that if any attempt was made to connect his fate with recent tensions between the Ethiopian community and the government, it would “cause [Mengistu] to stay in Gaza for another year.”

Lotan later apologized to the family, and the Mengistus accepted the apology.

Netanyahu on Thursday renounced Lotan’s threats, but nevertheless praised his representative’s efforts to advance negotiations over Mengistu’s return.

“Those were utterances that should not have been said,” Netanyahu stated. “Lior [Lotan] works day and night as a volunteer to return our missing soldiers and civilians.”

Netanyahu told the press earlier Thursday that “no effort is being spared” to return Mengistu and another Israeli being held by Hamas. The second hostage is an unnamed member of the Bedouin community in the Negev.

The father of the second Israeli hostage maintained that he had not received formal notice from the Israeli government that his son was in Gaza.

Avraham Mengistu (Courtesy)
Avraham Mengistu (Courtesy)

The father told Haaretz Thursday night that he had not been alerted by the authorities that his son was in Gaza, and had tried in vain to track him down several weeks ago through the Palestinian Authority.

“I have no idea where my son is, nobody told me he’s in Gaza and I don’t know if he’s there or not,” he said. The father said his son was “not sane,” and had gone missing on April 20.

“He’s crossed the border to Gaza twice before and was returned. I hope he’s alive and well. If I knew where he was I’d do what I can to bring him home, but I haven’t heard from anyone and no one has contacted me about him.”

In his first public remarks on the issue, Netanyahu said Thursday: “We are working to secure the release of both Israelis who crossed the border fence into Gaza. We see Hamas as responsible for their well-being,”

A gag order on the two hostages had been lifted earlier Thursday, following a court petition by two Israeli media outlets.

Avraham Mengistu (Courtesy)
Avraham Mengistu (Courtesy)

The captivity of the two men is viewed by Israel as a humanitarian issue unrelated to the negotiations over the bodies of the two soldiers, which have been held by Hamas since last summer’s fighting, an official told Walla news.

Hamas has denied holding Mengistu hostage, but Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials made it clear Thursday that they held the group ultimately responsible for the pair’s safety.

Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who crossed the Gaza security fence in September of last year. Family members have described Mengistu as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.

A senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied reports that Hamas was holding Mengistu, and said he was released soon after the group’s interrogators determined that he was not a soldier. According to the official, Mengistu left the coastal strip via a tunnel to Sinai, in an attempt, they said, to reach Ethiopia.

The second hostage, from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April. According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of entering Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.

The official said that since Hamas refuses to admit that it is holding the men, no negotiations are currently taking place.

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