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Israel Says 2 Citizens Are Being Held in Gaza

The mother of Avraham Mengistu, who is said to be held in Gaza by Hamas, before a news  conference in Ashkelon, Israel, on Thursday.
By ISABEL KERSHNER
July 9, 2015

JERUSALEM — Two Israeli civilians are being held by Hamas in Gaza, one of them a man who walked into the Palestinian coastal territory in September, the Israeli authorities said on Thursday.

Lifting a 10-month news blackout on the case, the Israeli authorities said that Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent in his 20s, “independently” crossed the Israeli-constructed security fence that runs around the Gaza Strip on Sept. 7. The other man said to be in Gaza, an Arab citizen of Israel, was not identified. The authorities provided few details about his case, other than that he had also crossed into Gaza.

The issue of Israelis in captivity is an emotional one in Israel, with the government’s having paid a high price in the past for the return of its citizens or of the remains of soldiers in lopsided prisoner exchange deals that have proved politically contentious, not least because of the large numbers of prisoners that Israel has released.

Mr. Mengistu, a resident of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, entered the territory about two weeks after a cease-fire came into effect that ended the 50-day war last year between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza.

Avraham Mengistu.

The revelations about the two men emerged on the heels of the anniversary of the start of that war. Hamas is also said to be holding the remains of two Israeli soldiers. Israeli leaders have vowed to work for the return of the soldiers’ remains, and they said on Thursday that they were also working for the return of the two civilians, who officials said are believed to be alive.

“We hold Hamas responsible for their welfare,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a statement.

Israel was long traumatized by the capture of Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was seized in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held captive by Hamas in Gaza for five years. After a broad public campaign that put pressure on the Israeli government, he was freed in 2011 in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of deadly attacks against Israelis.

Mr. Mengistu’s case threatened to open many of those old wounds. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli government agency that coordinates civilian affairs with the Palestinian authorities, said in a statement that Israel had “appealed to international and regional interlocutors to demand his immediate release and verify his well-being.”

An Israeli government official said the news blackout regarding Mr. Mengistu had been imposed with the agreement of his family. “It is understood that in these situations it is sometimes easier to solve things quietly,” he said.

An Israeli court lifted reporting restrictions on the case on Thursday morning after a request from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Previous requests to lift the blackout had reportedly been denied, and it was not clear what had prompted the change.

The Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said he could not elaborate on the timing of the decision to lift the news blackout.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas officials in Gaza, but the Israeli news site Ynet cited what it described as an unnamed Palestinian source in Gaza saying that the militant group was not currently holding Mr. Mengistu. The Palestinian told Ynet that Mr. Mengistu had initially been held by Hamas but that the group had released him when it became clear that he was not a soldier, and that he had left the Gaza Strip through an underground tunnel to Egypt.

Khaled Mashal, the exiled leader of Hamas, told reporters this week that Israel had contacted Hamas through a third party to discuss the soldiers’ remains. Mr. Mashal said that Hamas refused to negotiate their return until Israel released dozens of Palestinian prisoners who were among those freed in 2011 in exchange for Mr. Shalit but who have since been rearrested.

Mr. Mengistu’s brother, Yalu, said his brother was 26, although the Israeli authorities said he was born in 1986. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy. Reading a written statement at a news conference on Thursday, Yalu Mengistu said that his brother, whom he referred to as Avera, “seems to have crossed the border with Gaza and has since disappeared.”

“This is a difficult humanitarian situation because my brother is not well,” he added, alluding to Mr. Mengistu’s mental state. “In the name of my family and me, I ask the government of Israel to do everything to bring him home safely. I ask the international community to get involved and use all its influence to release my brother. I turn to Hamas and ask they take my brother’s condition into account and release him immediately.”

He added that the family had “decided to act with restraint and give the government of Israel the time to bring my brother home.”

“I turn to you citizens of Israel and ask you also act with restraint at this time,” he said.

Mr. Mengistu’s father, Haili, however, expressed frustration with the Israeli authorities’ handling of the case. “They said they will deal with it and will get him out,” he told Channel 10 television in Israel. “They told us not to tell anybody and not to talk about it, but in the end they did not do anything.”

The case of Mr. Mengistu also comes at a time of discontent for Israel’s Ethiopian community. Thousands of Israelis of Ethiopian descent recently participated in demonstrations intended to highlight their accusations of discrimination and police harassment, and some of the protests turned violent.