On September 7, 2014, a 28-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli named Avera Mengistu climbed over the fence separating Israel from Gaza and disappeared into the Gaza Strip. Though the Israeli military had been watching him through a security camera for half an hour as he marched down the beach towards the border, nobody stopped him. Ten months later, Israel admitted that Hamas was holding Mengistu prisoner.
Why Mengistu crossed the border remains mysterious; he is a diagnosed schizophrenic, which may have something to do with it. He joins another mentally ill Israeli citizen, Hisham al-Sayed, as well as the bodies of two slain soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, all in Hamas custody.
When we hear about Gaza in the news, we usually hear about clashes with Israel, like the kind that have dominated the news over the past three Fridays, which have resulted in 31 Palestinian deaths. We hear about Hamas’s stronghold over the people of Gaza, and the Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
What we don’t hear about is the little-known story of two mentally ill men being held hostage, with no contact with their families and all efforts to secure their release proving futile.
And yet, Mengistu may have gained a new set of champions, thanks to recent geopolitical developments involving Qatar. Ever since a Saudi blockade against the tiny Gulf country began last June, the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has been on a charm offensive, attempting to end the siege through diplomatic means.
This charm offensive included courting American Jews with ties to President Trump, among them the lawyer and activist Alan Dershowitz and Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America. Both were flown to Doha to meet with the emir, and because of Qatar’s close ties to Hamas, both brought up the soldiers’ bodies and the Israeli civilians being held by Hamas, asking the emir to intervene.
Could two American Jews be the help Mengistu’s family has prayed for?
Mengistu’s family moved to Israel from Ethiopia when Mengistu was five years old. But like so many other Ethiopian families, the Mengistus struggled, living in Ashkelon, a coastal town settled by Mizrahi Jews in the 50s, in a poor neighborhood, eking out a life on the margins of Israeli society. Avera’s mother cleaned houses to support her ten children. His father eventually moved out, leading a homeless, itinerant life.
The Mengistu family’s experience is devastatingly familiar to members of Israel’s Ethiopian community, which is 140,000 strong, and whose members have struggled to integrate into Israeli society since they were brought to Israel in two waves of mass immigration in 1984 and 1991.
“Many weren’t literate, certainly not part of a technical society,” explained Don Futterman, director of the Israel Center for Educational Innovation and program director for the Moriah Fund, which funds organizations that assist Ethiopians. “You come from a small village to an Israel that’s super individualistic, highly competitive, a capitalist economy, with soaring apartment prices, it’s very hard to get in, especially if you have no marketable skills.”
Ethiopians also face racism. “There’s a lot of good will towards the Ethiopian community that exists side by side with a lot of NIMBYism,” said Futterman. “Ethiopians experience racism and discrimination that most other Israeli Jews don’t have to deal with.”
In addition to the Mengistu family’s economic and social struggles, the family was devastated by the death of one of their sons, Michael, which hit Avera especially hard, inducing a mental breakdown. During the shiva, Avera began to turn inward, and stopped communicating with or talking to other members of his family.
Avera was subsequently hospitalized twice, for schizophrenia, and twice, he was released.
One afternoon, his mother came home from work and Avera asked her for money. She didn’t have any, and he stormed out of the house, slamming the door. He made his way to the beach, where security footage shows him walking south, purposefully, a satchel on his back and waves lapping at his feet.
Mengistu’s family was given a tape with footage from army security cameras that followed his progress down the shore.
The footage showed Mengistu approaching the fence, and then walking into Gaza. But the tape was incomplete; parts had been edited out, a fact recently uncovered by an Israeli television investigation. Before he climbed the fence, the investigation discovered, Mengistu was approached by Israeli soldiers, who briefly made contact, before somehow allowing him to slip into Gaza.
One of those soldiers, interviewed by the news channel, said they believed Mengistu to be a terrorist, though Mengistu dropped his backpack before climbing the fence.
The backpack was returned to his family. It contained a calculator, a math textbook, slippers, and a towel.
Why Mengistu wished to cross into Gaza is something we don’t know, and possibly can’t know.
“I blamed him when I first heard,” his brother, Ilan Mengistu, told me in Hebrew. “I thought, ‘God in Heaven, you couldn’t think of where to go, you had to go to Gaza?’ But today I know I can’t judge him. He has really deep problems. It’s very sad.”
Why he was allowed to cross is a different story. “When we saw the video, the first thing we noticed was, they were filming him for half an hour! From the first minute he started walking there, and no one did anything,” Ilan said. “No one approached him. They say they thought he was a terrorist. Ok, so what if it’s a terrorist? They’re just going to let him go back where he came from?”
The Israel Defense Force’s explanation is slightly different. “The IDF has an operational procedure for crossing into the Gaza Strip, which includes firing shots into the air and calling out in attempt to stop the person crossing,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “In this incident, military forces arrived at the operational area adjacent to the security fence that was under threat, and carried out the routine procedure within minutes.”
The spokesperson also explained why Mengistu might not have been stopped. “It’s important to note that the main scenario that the IDF troops are prepared for is the exact opposite — the IDF is trained to thwart infiltration attempts by terrorists into Israeli territory,” the spokesperson wrote.
The spokesperson didn’t directly respond to a question regarding whether any soldiers had been disciplined for the event, but they did say that the incident was investigated at various levels of command, first in an initial field investigation and later on with the relevant commanders, and the lessons learned were “implemented into operational orders.”
“The IDF will continue to act in coordination with the POWs and MIAs Coordinator and his team, in order to return the IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens held by the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza,” the spokesperson wrote.
Mengistu’s MIA coordinator, Yaron Bloom, is not speaking to journalists due to the sensitivity of the situation. But he assured me that all efforts are being made to secure Mengistu’s release.
Part of the problem is a lack of public outrage, of the kind aroused by Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier captured by Hamas and held for five years until he was released in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. It’s a problem that activists have been trying to fix with a “Free Avera” campaign.
But some view the lack of enthusiasm around Mengistu’s case, starting with the soldiers who didn’t stop him from crossing into enemy territory, as proof of tacit racism.
“Is Israel trying as hard as it should be to turn over every stone? Can more be done? Of course, more can be done,” said Ilana Mushkin, International Community Manager of the Free Avera Mengistu Committee. “Are there elements of racism? Probably so. Probably if he came from a well-connected family in one of the kibbutzim, probably everything would be different. It’s hard not to think that.”
“If Avera was a white kid, it would be a bigger outcry,” Gershon Baskin, the negotiator who secured Gilad Shalit’s release, told me. “It’s not racism on the color of his skin, it’s racism on the social status that he has, as an Ethiopian citizen of Israel and also the fact that he went into Gaza, on his own. Even if he’s mentally ill, and didn’t know what he’s doing, the country, the society doesn’t feel the same level of responsibility that they do with regards to soldiers.”
Soldiers are sent into battle by the government, Baskin explained. And the two soldiers being held by Hamas were killed in Gaza protecting Israel. “What’s important to the Israeli government is the return of the bodies of the two soldiers,” Baskin said. “The two civilians, both of them are considered mentally ill, both of them went into Gaza on their own.”
But that’s not the real reason he’s still being held, Mushkin said. About that she was unequivocal: “The blame lies with Hamas.”
The stakes of Mengistu’s imprisonment are higher than anyone might realize. For starters, Hamas doesn’t view Mengistu as a civilian, but as an enemy combatant, even though he was exempted from IDF service.
As Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, one of Hamas’ founders, explained to me, “He is an Israeli soldier, so he is not a civilian. He was here to kill our people and he participated in killing our children and destroying our houses.”
It was a point repeated to me by Dr. Bassim Naem, Gaza’s representative in Hamas’ foreign relations office and former minister of health. “He is a soldier, a security man, not a civilian,” he told me.
As for whether or not Mengistu is getting medical treatment for his mental illness, Zahar said, “I don’t believe he has a mental illness, but if he had, of course, we are treating people.” When I asked about the conditions Mengistu is being kept in, Zahar said, “Ask Shalit how Hamas treated him, how Hamas dealt with him. This is a good example, this is a fair example.”
From Hamas’s point of view, negotiations are being held up by the fact that a number of the prisoners released in the Shalit prisoner exchange were later rearrested. And for Hamas, releasing those men is a precondition for even starting negotiations.
“This is the principal, the main condition of Hamas,” Naem told me. “We cannot speak about it at all unless all the prisoners, especially who were released in the Gilad Shalit deal, are released again.”
Naem explained that there was no trust with Israel, since one of the conditions of the Shalit deal was that those prisoners wouldn’t be rearrested.
“Up to this moment, we can’t press the Israelis because they have no good intention to solve the problem,” Zahar said.
Whether this something the Israelis would consider, the IDF declined to comment.
But Baskin says the Israeli side would be willing to include these prisoners, of which about forty remain who were rearrested, not as a down payment but as part of a package deal that included the two soldiers’ bodies and the two hostages. “You won’t get anyone to admit this, but I know for a fact that these 40-something would be included in a deal,” Baskin said.
Could Qatar help get the ball rolling? Enter Dershowitz.
Not everyone is pleased by American Jewish leaders trying their hand at international relations. “Israel is emphatically opposed to this outreach,” the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, told me via email.
An Israeli official explained that several Jewish organization leaders approached the ambassador for his opinion before agreeing to meet with the emir. He encouraged them not to go and told them that the prime minister disapproved of the mission. (They met with him anyway.) “Some people [in the Arab world] think these Jews are going over there with our approval, and they are not,” the official said.
But a source close to the situation told the Forward that Dershowitz speaks straight to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is aware of his work trying to get Mengistu released. The source said that Dershowitz was originally discouraged from pursuing this with Qatar, but only because the Egyptian efforts seemed to be succeeding, and when they fell through, he was told to try with the Qataris again. (Zahar confirmed that both Qatar and Egypt have been in touch about this issue.) “I know what Ron Dermer has to say,” the source said. “They’ve all been instructed to say that publicly. But the reality is there’s a big difference between what they say publicly and what they understand is happening.”
Could Dershowitz and Klein be the saviors Avera Mengistu so desperately needs? Baskin is skeptical.
“Qatar has no influence on Hamas,” he said. “The only party that has influence over Hamas is Egypt, and this is not at the top of Egypt’s agenda.”
The real reason there’s no deal is that Hamas has played a cynical game, says Baskin, convincing the Palestinian people that Hamas is holding live soldiers, and they are going to use them to release thousands of Palestinians from prison, as with Shalit. Hamas only faces Palestinian disappointment from making a deal.
Still, it’s not hopeless, Baskin said: “When Hamas will be willing to make a limited deal, a deal is there to be made.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.