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
Dozens of protesters gathered outside a prison in central Israel on Monday morning to rally for the release of Avraham Mengistu, 28, an Israeli captive reportedly held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The protest, spearheaded by the Mengistu family, was timed to coincide with visiting day for Palestinian prisoners in the Hadarim prison. According to Channel 2, the family planned to speak to the Palestinian prisoners’ families, in an effort to convey an appeal to Hamas to release the Israeli-Ethiopian captive on humanitarian and medical grounds.

During the protest, Mengistu’s brother boarded a bus of Palestinian visitors and distributed flyers in Arabic calling for his brother’s release, an Army Radio correspondent wrote on Twitter.

The protesters, meanwhile, confronted the prisoners’ families with signs reading: “Abera’s mother wants to visit him, too” and “You visit your families, while Abera’s mother doesn’t know where he is,” using a nickname for Mengistu.

“We came here to tell Hamas that holding a man who is mentally ill is an unprecedented crime,” said Ilan Mengistu, the brother of the captive, according to Channel 2. “We demand his immediate release so that he can receive treatment.”

Mengistu crossed over into Gaza Strip last September. Israel maintains that he is being held by Hamas, though the Gaza-based terror group has refused to confirm it, and has not publicly issued any demands for his release.

In July, a senior Palestinian official based in the Gaza Strip denied that the group was holding the Israeli man. According to the official, Mengistu was briefly held by the group but was released a short while later after Hamas interrogators determined he was not a soldier.

The official further claimed that the Israeli left the coastal strip via a tunnel to Sinai, apparently in an attempt to reach Ethiopia. Other Hamas officials said last month they had an Israeli “soldier” in captivity, but said he was not mentally ill and had entered the coastal territory during the summer war, not in September. Israel has made clear that it holds Hamas ultimately responsible for the welfare and safety of Mengistu, and said it will not free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his release.

Mengistu, who has a history of mental illness, had received an IDF exemption and was not in a soldier, stressed his brother on Monday, contrary to Hamas’s boasts.

Pointing to the Palestinian prisoner visits, he commented: “The prisoners here are treated and receive benefits from our money, and are also eligible for visits. My mother cannot visit Abera.”

The protest Monday was the first by the Mengistu family, which has kept a low profile in the 11 months since Mengistu disappeared.

Last month, Lior Lotan, the chief negotiator for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the bodies of two fallen soldiers held by Hamas, threatened the Mengistu family that speaking out would affect efforts to secure his return.

A recording of Lotan, aired by Channel 10, revealed that the chief negotiator had warned the family that criticism of the government or linking Mengistu’s captivity to recent social protests in Israel by the Ethiopian-Israeli community would “cause [Mengistu] to stay in Gaza for another year.”

Following a public outcry, Lotan apologized, and the family said it had accepted his apology.

On Monday, Ilan Mengistu stressed that the family had no issues with the Israeli government.

“We trust the government and are not disappointed [by their efforts],” he said, “but this cannot wait.”