Israel’s decision to publicize the detention by Hamas of two Israeli citizens who crossed separately into the Gaza Strip in the past year is likely a step toward negotiating their release.
Israel’s defense minister confirmed Thursday that the two men were being held after authorities lifted a gag order at the request of news organizations. Both men were described by relatives as emotionally unstable.
Avera Mengistu, 28, an Israeli of Ethiopian origin who lived in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, crossed a border fence on a beach into the Gaza Strip on Sept. 7, 2014. Relatives said he left behind a bag containing a Bible.
The second man was identified only as a member of the Arab Bedouin minority from the southern Negev region. Officials said he crossed into Gaza in April. A relative told Israel Radio that he had crossed the Gaza border previously during an Israeli offensive there last year.
News reports said he had also breached the borders with Egypt and Jordan.
“Two Israeli citizens are in the Gaza Strip, in the hands of Hamas,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “We consider Hamas responsible for their fate and demand their return.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was making efforts to recover the two men. “I expect the international community, which expresses its concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, to issue a clear call for these citizens to be released and to see to their return,” he said.
The two men’s cases became public as Israel marks the anniversary of an outbreak of violence than began with the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, escalated with the burning death of a Palestinian teenager, and included the deaths of hundreds of Gaza residents in a weeks-long bombing campaign.
The Defense Ministry section responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs said that “according to credible intelligence,” Mengistu was being held “against his will” by Hamas. “Israel has appealed to international and regional interlocutors to demand his immediate release and verify his well-being,” the department said.
Yalo Mengistu, the missing man’s brother, told a news conference that his brother “is not well,” and he appealed to Hamas to “take into consideration my brother’s condition and free him immediately.”
A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Salah Bardawil, said he did not have “any information” about the case, but Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, appeared to allude to it in comments Tuesday to the London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed newspaper.
Mashal said that Israel had asked Hamas through a European mediator to release “two soldiers and two bodies.”
Israel is seeking the return of the remains of two soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed in combat during last summer’s war in Gaza.
Mashal said Hamas told the mediator that it would not negotiate or release information about the “prisoners” it holds until Israel releases Palestinians rearrested a year ago during a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank following the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers.
The rearrested men had been freed in a 2011 prisoner exchange in which Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured and held five years by Hamas.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.