In a post last December we highlighted the history of Israel’s prisoner exchanges with various Palestinian armed factions. As we noted:

For the past three decades, Israel has been forced to exchange scores of incarcerated terrorists for a mere handful of its POWs. In the majority of these lopsided prisoner swaps the Israeli soldiers had already been killed and came home in body bags. And in many cases the freed terrorists have gone on to perpetrate further terror attacks”.

Israeli soldiers, either dead or alive, have proven to be valuable bargaining chips. So basically, as we discussed, Palestinian terror organizations have been running a prisoner-exchange extortion racket.

Now it looks like Israel may again be forced to pay a steep price for several of its civilians too.

On Friday, Hamas publicly claimed for the first time that it was holding two Israeli men in captivity.

They’ve been missing for months since separately crossing the border into Gaza.

One of the men is Avraham Mengistu, a 29-year-old Ethiopian Jew who disappeared nearly two years ago. A ten-month court mandated gag order on his case was lifted back in July. Since then, his distraught family has been trying to raise awareness about his plight–both in Israel and abroad.

The Hamas Islamist government in Gaza hasn’t provided any concrete information about his whereabouts or condition. In fact, as we note below, Hamas officials have had a vested interest in misinforming the public about him. For months, they’ve been falsely portraying him as a POW.

The reality is that Mengistu isn’t a soldier. Reportedly suffering from unspecified mental issues, he’s been hospitalized several times for psychiatric problems. He was never in the IDF. In fact, he was rejected for military service years ago.

The other man being held, an unnamed Bedouin man, is an Israeli Arab. According to media reports, he’s also an innocent civilian who is reportedly mentally ill.

So not only are Hamas’s actions here in contravention to the rules of international humanitarian law. They’re also an affront to basic human decency.

Hamas: “We have four prisoners of war in our custody”

Avraham Mengistu (also known by the nickname Avera) is an Israeli of Ethiopian heritage who reportedly wandered away from his home in Ashkelon, Israel into Gaza back on September 7, 2014 and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Avraham (Avera) Mengistu | Credit: Facebook

Avraham (Avera) Mengistu | Credit: Facebook

Also being unlawfully detained in Gaza is a Bedouin from the Negev village of Hura whose identity has not yet been revealed by the Israeli government. He reportedly entered Gaza in April of last year, has “mild psychological issues”, and a past history of trying to cross the borders into Jordan, Egypt, and Gaza too.

In Friday’s public statement, Hamas also finally publicly admitted to holding the remains of two Israeli soldiers—Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul who were killed during Operation Protective Edge.

IDF soldiers Oren Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) | Credit: Flash90 Times of Israel

IDF soldiers Oren Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) | Credit: Flash90 Times of Israel

Hamas’s military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, released photographs of the four.

In a televised statement it said that Israel will have to make concessions if it wants any information about the conditions of the “prisoners of war”.

A Hamas spokesperson, who goes by the moniker Abu Obeida, further denied that there were any plans underway for their release:

Netanyahu is lying to his people and deceiving the families of the captive soldiers. There are no talks or negotiations relating to the prisoners. The enemy will not get information about the four without paying a clear price before and after the negotiations”.

Here’s a screenshot of the video uploaded by the Hamas-affiliated al-Aqsa TV showing the hostages (the Bedouin whose name is barred from publication is blurred):

Credit: screenshot

Credit: screenshot

The Hamas announcement, along with the photos, is accessible on the Facebook page of the Shehab News Agency:

وضع صور 4 جنود صهاينة .. #عاجل .. أبو عبيدة الناطق باسم كتائب القسام: نتنياهو يكذب على شعبه في موضوع الجنود المأسورين في #غزة ولن يكون هناك معلومات بالمجان ..

Posted by Shehab News Agency on Friday, April 1, 2016

By all accounts this is a bizarre situation.

Both of the Israeli civilians now in Hamas custody weren’t abducted.

So some are saying that, unlike in the past, Israel won’t pay the high price demanded for two men who “fell into [Hamas’s] lap” by apparently walking into its territory of their own accord.

The Israeli government seems to be doing everything it can to bring them home safely.

And according to some commentators, the very fact that Hamas has come clean on holding Mengistu and the Bedouin civilian is a “positive development that allows for future dialogue”.

Perhaps.

But what it does permit is more pressure to be brought to bear on Hamas, one of the world’s most dangerous and immoral groups.

Hamas Sows Confusion on Mengistu’s Whereabouts

Mengistu disappeared only a few weeks after the end of Israel’s last war with Hamas.

Avraham (Avera) Mengistu | Credit: Family handout

Avraham (Avera) Mengistu | Credit: Family handout

He reportedly climbed over a barrier near the seashore at Zikim beach, ignoring IDF soldiers who saw him and called out for him to stop.

Zikim Beach

At first, Hamas didn’t officially acknowledge having any information about Mengistu.

But for months following his disappearance there were numerous reports and rumors about him in the Arabic media.

Some of them claimed that he was no longer alive and had been swept into the Mediterranean Sea.

Other sources noted that Hamas had detained Mengistu for questioning, determined he wasn’t mentally stable, and had decided to return him to Israel. When he refused, they released him into Gaza.

Still additional sources reportedly maintained that he left the Strip through one of the smuggling tunnels on the Egyptian border and was headed back to Ethiopia.

Hamas neither confirmed nor denied any of these reports.

Then, at a military gathering in Gaza last July, Hamas displayed a huge model of a fist holding a mock-up of an IDF dog tag from one of the missing soldiers. Two other dog tags had question marks drawn on it, implying that two additional Israeli soldiers were being held captive.

Credit: i24News

Credit: i24News

At the time, Hamas political leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal reportedly alluded to Mengistu when discussing Israelis held by his organization.

Reports in Arab media last month also indicated that international mediators were working on a prisoner swap.

According to the reports, Hamas was demanding as a precondition that Israel free the prisoners who were let go as part of the October 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.

Kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, an armored corps corporal who spent five years in captivity, was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian detainees.

About 80 of them were rearrested in June 2014 when Israel was seeking information about the three Jewish teens who were kidnapped by a Hamas terror cell and later found murdered in the West Bank.

Hamas wants its fighters back, and so it’s been deliberately spreading misinformation about Mengistu.

It’s not hard to understand why. Avi Issacharoff explains for The Times of Israel:

Mengistu and a second captive Israeli, a Bedouin who crossed into the Strip, constitute significant assets for Gaza’s Islamist rulers…[they] know that Israel will not pay a high price for the remains of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul…two living Israelis change the equation”.

Basically, Hamas knows that securing the release of those re-arrested Palestinians will give it a huge boost in public opinion.

As we noted in our previous post, the fate of prisoners incarcerated in Israel’s jails is of major concern to the Palestinian public, and not only to the affected families.

A prominent and well-funded Palestinian NGO, Adameer, devotes all of its energies to the issue. And there are literally dozens of videos online depicting Palestinian families protesting the imprisonment of their relatives. Here’s one from last week:

So Hamas has a strong incentive to spread disinformation, creating the false impression that it’s holding an Israeli soldier captive. As Al-Monitor’s Shlomi Eldar writes:

The group uses this belief to imply that they will be able to get a significant number of prisoners released in exchange for the soldier, just as they did in the Shalit exchange”.

The question is whether Israel will pay the kind of price Hamas has in mind for Mengistu—a young man who crossed into Gaza of his own volition, and wasn’t kidnapped during his military service.

Explaining the Gag Order

Mengistu’s disappearance wasn’t made public until last July, when an Israeli court-imposed gag order was lifted.

Some reports have faulted the Israeli military and government for insisting on the months-long silence and for not doing enough to locate Avraham.

There’ve been intimations that racism is at play.

Mengistu belongs to Israel’s 135,000 strong ethnic Ethiopian community. So the claim is that had he been a white man from a “well-established Israeli family”, and not an impoverished Ethiopian one, his case would’ve been treated differently.

The accusation is unwarranted.

In fact, it’s been dismissed by Mengistu’s relatives who have said that “the government is doing what it can”.

Activist w/T-shirt (Hebrew: Avera Mengistu?) | Ashkelon, Israel | July 9, 2015 | Twitter

Activist w/T-shirt (Hebrew: Avera Mengistu?) | Ashkelon, Israel | July 9, 2015 | Twitter

Israeli security sources have made clear that the family has been kept up to date. Relatives have met at length with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and with President Reuven Rivlin.

PM Netanyahu has also met with the family, and a former army officer who has worked with POW families in the past was also reportedly appointed by Ya’alon to help the family “navigate the emotional and strategic pitfalls of the negotiation process”.

Ashkelon mayor meets with Mengistus

It’s pretty clear that Israel remained silent on Mengistu’s disappearance in the hope that his release could be arranged on humanitarian grounds. Even senior ministers and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee were reportedly kept in the dark so as to keep the situation a “low-key humanitarian issue” and out of the public limelight.

Toward that end, Mengistu’s medical documentation and military discharge papers were reportedly relayed to Hamas—an attempt to prove that he suffers from mental illness and needs medical treatment, and that he didn’t enter Gaza as a combatant or a spy.

Israeli authorities have typically advised the families of POWs to keep silent because publicizing their cases could complicate efforts to secure their release.

So there’s nothing really suspicious about the 10-month gag order on Mengistu’s case. In the past, both the families and the government have changed tactics only after lengthy secretive efforts fail to yield results.

That seems to be the calculation that was made in Mengistu’s case too. That, and the fact that everyone in the region seemed to know about his presence in Gaza except for his fellow citizens. This presumably also persuaded the courts to agree to a media request to lift the gag order.

A Family’s Plea for Human Rights

In researching this post, I found that a number of commentators believe that Mengistu’s family doesn’t have the wherewithal to mount a public campaign on his behalf—something that would exert pressure on the government (but could also raise Hamas’s price).

To my mind, though, the anguished family has been giving it their all.

Since the gag order was lifted, they’ve been slamming Hamas every chance they get, and appealing to the international community to help bring Avera home.

Back on August 17, they staged a protest outside of the Hadarim Detention Center in central Israel.

The rally was deliberately planned to coincide with visiting day for Palestinian inmates held in the facility. About two dozen demonstrators, including Mengistu’s relatives, protested outside the gates of the prison expressing what they said was a “humanitarian demand” that he be released from captivity.

Mengistu’s brother Ilan reportedly also addressed comments to the Palestinian families who had arrived to spend time with their relatives:

While you are visiting your loved ones in Israel, Avera Mengistu, an innocent 29-year-old civilian, is being held in Gaza. Despite the fact that he is not well and was never a soldier, Hamas continues to keep him captive and refuses to release him or give any information on his whereabouts”.

Basically, Ilan Mengistu accused the Palestinians congregated there of being accomplices in his brother’s plight.

According to media reports, hundreds of supporters had tried to join the protest but the Israeli police had limited the crowd to 26 demonstrators.

Last December, the family again made media appearances after Egyptian soldiers shot dead an obviously mentally disabled Palestinian who accidentally entered Egyptian territory by sea.

The man had waded through the Mediterranean from Gaza past a wire fence on the Egyptian side of the border, when he was hit by shots fired by troops manning a nearby watchtower. At the time, Hamas accused Egypt of “executing” the mentally ill Gazan and demanded that those responsible be prosecuted.

There are several videos of the incident on YouTube. Warning: graphic material.

The Mengistu family slammed Hamas for its “hypocrisy”.

More recently, Mengistu’s mother, Agurnesh, his father, Ayaline, and brother, Gashao (30) traveled to Geneva to plead his brother’s case before European diplomats (Geneva is where the UN’s European headquarters is located).

At the press conference Gashao reportedly said:

When Hamas is asking for humanitarian assistance and contributions to the people in Gaza, then the international community should tell them: Don’t expect us to assist you when you are violating the same rights on the other side.”

Conclusion

As we noted in our prior post, for decades terror groups have demanded that Israel pay exorbitant prices for the return of its POWs. It’s cost Israel dearly. In all these cases, a large number of the operatives who were freed went right back to work, causing the murder and kidnapping of more Israelis.

These bitter experiences have led some to conclude that Israel won’t be prepared to go the distance for Avraham Mengistu, a mentally disturbed man who walked into Hamas territory of his own accord.

To be sure, the circumstances of Mengistu’s abduction are different.

He wasn’t stationed in Gaza. He wasn’t kidnapped from Israeli territory while serving in the IDF.

But, as we suggested in our earlier post, Israelis have shown considerable sympathy for the plight of their fellow citizens and their desperate families, tormented and manipulated by terror organizations.

Rally for Avera Mengistu | Credit: Moshe Ben-Simhon, Israel Hayom

Rally for Avera Mengistu | Credit: Moshe Ben-Simhon, Israel Hayom

There’s a precedent too.

Back in 2004, Israel “paid [Hezbollah] through the nose” for three dead soldiers and Elhanan Tannenbaum. Like Mengistu, Tannenbaum wasn’t a soldier. In fact, he was a drug dealer who had knowingly traveled to Dubai on a false passport provided by another Lebanese drug dealer.

Mengistu is no criminal, much less a combatant. As his brother remarked at last year’s rally on his behalf, he’s a helpless man who ended up in Gaza because he didn’t know what he was doing.

Mengistu is just one person. But what’s happening to him is unconscionable. Add it to the list of Hamas’s despicable behavior.

Featured Image: Avera Mengistu (Credit: Family Photo/EPA)

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman