Amid detente with Hamas, Israel says 2 citizens held in Gaza
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Thursday said that two of its citizens are being held captive in the Gaza Strip, an announcement that brought back bitter memories of the case of an Israeli soldier who was captured and imprisoned for five years by the Hamas militant group.
But circumstances have changed dramatically since Gilad Schalit’s release in a 2011 prisoner swap, and the case announced Thursday could provide an important test of a new fragile detente that has emerged between Israel and Hamas since their devastating war last year. A relatively subdued reaction in Israel reflected the new reality, though Hamas is likely to push for a new round of prisoner releases by Israel before it returns the two men.
Israeli defense officials identified one of the men as Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent in his late 20s.
According to COGAT, the defense body that handles civilian issues with the Palestinians, Mengistu disappeared after he “independently” crossed the border fence and entered Gaza on Sept. 7, two weeks after the end of last year’s war.
It gave no further details on why he had crossed into Gaza, though Israeli media said he had been distraught at the time of his disappearance.
COGAT said the second man was a Bedouin Arab citizen from southern Israel. It refused to identify him or say how long he had been in Gaza or how he got there. Officials also would not say which group had him in custody.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he held Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing control of the territory in 2007, responsible for the fate of both men. Netanyahu said Israel was working to free them and that he had appointed a representative to deal with the matter.
“Yesterday I spoke with the parents and siblings of Avraham Mengistu and I told them that from the moment the incident became known, we have spared no effort to return him to Israel,” Netanyahu said, urging the international community to “issue a clear call” for their release.
But there were no threats of action against Hamas, in contrast to a bruising military campaign that followed Hamas’ capture of Schalit in a 2006 cross-border raid — or more recently, the arrests of scores of Hamas supporters after the deadly abduction of three Israeli teens in the West Bank last year.
The kidnapping set off a string of events that culminated in a 50-day war that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza and 73 people on the Israeli side. It was their third war since the Hamas takeover.
Since then, Israel and Hamas have largely honored a cease-fire and even reached some unspoken understandings to preserve quiet, a reflection of the shared threat to both sides by Gaza’s Salafi militants inspired by the Islamic State extremist group.
Notably absent on Thursday were also the type of celebrations in Gaza that had accompanied previous kidnappings of Israelis. A Hamas spokesman, Salah Bardawil, said he had no information about the two missing Israelis.
“Even if it is true, we don’t have instructions to talk about it,” he said.
The different circumstances also contributed to the subdued reactions. Where Schalit and the teens were captured in military-style operations, the latest disappearances appeared accidental.
“It’s a completely different situation,” said Gershon Baskin, an Israeli activist who helped mediate the Schalit exchange deal, in which Israel freed more than 1,000 prisoners.
“They’re not dealing with a valuable asset” like a captured soldier, Baskin said. “It’s not the same high-value bargaining card.”
Still, a protracted round of negotiations appears likely.
A senior Hamas official said that as a precondition for negotiations, the group would seek the release of nearly 60 militants released by Israel in the Schalit deal and then re-arrested last year after the three Israeli teens were kidnapped.
Hamas will also seek the release of some of the thousands of Palestinians held by Israel, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the group’s internal deliberations.
While Israel said nothing about the Bedouin man held in Gaza, the Hamas official claimed he had served in the Israeli military and was considered a prisoner.
Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said a possible deal could include steps to strengthen the cease-fire. “I think the swap would be part of a long-term truce, five years or more,” he said.
One of the first issues could be determining the fate of Mengistu. The Hamas official said Mengistu had walked into Gaza and appeared to have “psychological” problems. He said Mengistu told interrogators in the coastal strip that he did not want to go back to Israel and then left Gaza through a smuggling tunnel into Egypt in hopes of ultimately returning to Ethiopia.
COGAT, however, said it had “credible intelligence” that Mengistu was being held “against his will” by Hamas.
Israeli Channel 2 TV said Mengistu arrived at an Israeli beach near the Gaza border on the evening of Sept. 7, left his bag behind and crossed into Gaza through a breach in the border fence that was apparently made by Israeli tanks during the 2014 war.
“This is a difficult humanitarian matter, because my brother is not in the best of health,” Ilan Mengistu told reporters. He did not elaborate, but Israeli Channel 2 TV said Mengistu was distraught following the death of another brother.
Israeli Channel 10 broadcast an interview with a man it identified as Mengistu’s father. “They didn’t do anything,” Haili Mengistu said. “Where is my son?”
While Mengistu’s disappearance had been well known inside Israel’s Ethiopian community, Israel had barred publication of the incident for several months.
Israeli media had lobbied hard for permission to publish details on the case, putting pressure on the government to release information.
Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, also may have forced Israel’s hand by telling a London newspaper this week that Israel had asked Hamas through a European mediator to release “two soldiers and two bodies.” Israeli officials have said that the remains of two soldiers killed in combat last summer are held by Hamas.
Israeli lawmaker Yaakov Peri, a former director of the Shin Bet intelligence agency and an ex- government coordinator for prisoner of war issues, said that going public may have hurt the negotiations but that talks could nonetheless succeed in the current climate.
“Calculations are a little bit less emotional. And it’s good. It’s good for the negotiations, and I am sure it will affect the outcome,” he said.
Associated Press writers Daniel Estrin and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.