JERUSALEM – It is one of the most guarded borders in the world, but on September 7, 2014, a slender Israeli man managed to squeeze through thick barbed wire and enter Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Nothing has been heard of him since then.
The last confirmed sighting of Avera Mengistu, who was 26 years old at the time, was on Israeli army surveillance cameras following his lonely silhouette and stalking steadily along the beach.
His family says he suffers from mental illness and was transferred to the Israeli military for health reasons, and he unknowingly enters Gaza, the blocked Palestinian territory that lies on the southern tip of the Israeli coast.
He is widely believed to be in the hands of Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip. Hamas has refused to disclose any information and points out that Mengistu and another Israeli civilian, Hisham al-Sayed, are in detention, destroying their fate by negotiating the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed during the Gaza Strip. Wars were killed in 201
Mengistu's disappearance has attracted little publicity in Israel, in sharp contrast to concern for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas for five years and finally released in 2011 in exchange for 1,029 Palestinian prisoners.
Mengistu comes from an immigrant family, Ethiopian Jews, who arrived in 1991. His parents, who speak little Hebrew, live in a slum of Ashkelon, less than nine miles from the border with Gaza. His mother Agarnesh said it was a dispute over his request to lend 50 shekels, less than $ 15, to march him into hostile territory.
"He is the son of poor people, so no one comes to his aid," Agarnesh said through tears on one last day. "I do not care who has him, I just want him back, I'm worried about him 24 hours a day."
In recent weeks, Mengistu's family has – his mother, his father, and a selection of his 10 siblings and other relatives – pitched his camp on the street outside the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. It is an attempt, they say, to keep the plight of her brother in public and put pressure on the Israeli government to secure his freedom, or at least to get a sign that he is still alive.
"Avera's story is completely different from the soldiers, he has never held arms, he's accidentally landed there, he's mentally ill," said Mengistu's older brother Ilan. "We know it's complicated, we understand that, but in the end we're talking about an innocent man being held there against his will."
David Meidan, a former Mossad agent who led the negotiating team that eventually secured Shalit's release, agreed a year ago to help the Mengistu family.
Israelis and relatives of Avraham Mengistu, a 28-year-old Israeli of Ethiopian descent who disappeared after crossing into the Gaza Strip, gathered on the Israeli side of the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip on September 3, 2015. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP / Getty Images)
"Shalit was a very emotional event for Israeli society, he was a soldier on duty and he has not decided to voluntarily cross the fence," Meidan said. "Everybody in Israel saw himself, his son, or someone he knew in the same situation, a whole different story from someone who is not a soldier, not a hero and for some reason decided to cross the fence."
Meidan added, "Mengistu is not an attractive person, he is a poor person who does not come from a strong Israeli family."
Meidan, along with a handful of other former security officials and diplomats, uses their connections to help to discuss the case with European ambassadors. Israeli doctors are also highlighting Mengistu's situation with Gazans in Israeli hospitals and stressing the injustice of his detention.
"Our focus is now on getting a sign of life and visiting a doctor, a doctor." Meidan said.
On Wednesday, the family met with Netanyahu and his coordinator for the problem, Yaron Blum.
"We told Netanyahu not to mention Avera's disappearance," said Ilan Mengistu. He said the family implored the Israeli leader to play a greater role in human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. The meeting did not provide any new information, he said.
A statement by Netanyahu said that there are both diplomatic and secret efforts to ensure the release of Mengistu and Sayed, an Israeli Bedouin who disappeared in April 2015, as well as the bodies of both Israeli soldiers.
Later, Hamas issued a statement rejecting any proposal for negotiation "on a new exchange of prisoners".
In 2016, Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East, traveled to Gaza and later co-authored a report condemning Hamas for the inhumane treatment of Mengistu and Sayed, both serious have mental problems.
"We had good access to Hamas officials and have addressed the fact that the two men are civilians," Goldstein said. "We told Hamas that this is an opportunity for them to change their perception and make a real humanitarian gesture."
Among them, the co-founder of Hamas, Mohammed al-Zahar, arrived, said Goldstein hard line, saying: There are no civilians in Israel. They all go to the army. He said, "The Israelis who entered Gaza are spies.
Zahar would not confirm that they were imprisoned by Hamas, Goldstein said.
Several requests from Human Rights Watch to return to Gaza and continue work on the case were rejected by the Israeli authorities. The military government responsible for the movement between Gaza and Israel said that 2016 was an exception for the group, but it was only granted once.
Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, columnist at Hamas Resalah, said The problem with resolving Mengistu's case is not with Hamas
"It is with the Israelis who are not interested in paying the price," he said. "If Israel opened a bargaining channel, then an agreement would be reached
Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies and former Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Health strategic affairs, said the Israeli government's hands are joined. He said the "Shalit affair" was a turning point for public opinion.
"The consequences of this agreement were that many of the released Palestinian prisoners went back to terrorism, actively participated in terrorist attacks and even killed Israeli citizens," Michael added. "Israel will not be willing to pay the price, which Hamas demands. "
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.
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