JERUSALEM — It is among the most heavily guarded borders in the world, yet on Sept. 7, 2014, a slender Israeli man managed to squeeze through rolls of thick barbed wire and cross from Israel into the Gaza Strip.
He has not been heard from since.
The last confirmed sighting of Avera Mengistu, who was 26 at the time, was on Israeli army security cameras that followed his lonely silhouette marching steadfastly along the beach toward a fate unknown.
His family says he suffers from mental illness and was passed over for duty in the Israeli military for health reasons, and that he unwittingly entered Gaza, the blockaded Palestinian territory that sits at the southern tip of Israel’s coastline.
He is widely believed to be in the hands of Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip. Hamas has refused to divulge any information, hinting Mengistu and another Israeli civilian, Hisham al-Sayed, are in its custody by tying their fates to negotiations over the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed during the 2014 Gaza war and the future of thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Mengistu’s disappearance has garnered little public attention in Israel, a sharp contrast to the outpouring of concern for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas for five years and eventually released in 2011 in exchange for 1,029 Palestinian prisoners.
Mengistu comes from a family of immigrants, Ethiopian Jews who arrived in 1991. His parents, who barely speak Hebrew, live in a poor neighborhood of Ashkelon, barely nine miles from the Gaza border. His mother, Agarnesh, said it was an argument over his request to borrow 50 shekels, less than $15, that sent him marching off into enemy territory.
“He’s the son of poor people, so no one comes to his aid,” Agarnesh said through tears on a recent day. “I don’t care who has him, I just want him back. I worry about him 24 hours a day.”
In recent weeks, Mengistu’s family — his mother, father and an assortment of his 10 siblings and other relatives — have set up camp on the street outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. It is an attempt, they say, to keep their brother’s plight in the public eye and apply pressure on the Israeli government to secure his freedom, or at least gain a sign he is still alive.
“Avera’s story is completely different to the soldiers. He never held arms. He ended up there by mistake. He is mentally ill,” said Mengistu’s older brother, Ilan. “We know it’s complicated, we understand that, but at the end of the day, we are talking about an innocent man who is being held there against his will.”
David Meidan, a former Mossad agent who headed the negotiating team that eventually secured Shalit’s release, agreed a year ago to help the Mengistu family.
“Shalit was a very emotional event for Israeli society. He was a soldier on duty. He did not decide to cross the fence of his own free will,” Meidan said. “Everyone in Israel potentially saw themselves, their son or someone they know in the same situation, a very different story to someone who is not a soldier, not a hero and who decided to cross the fence for whatever reason.”
Meidan added, “Mengistu is not an attractive person. He is a poor person who does not come from a strong Israeli family.”
Meidan, together with a handful of other former security officials and diplomats among others are using their connections to press the case with European ambassadors. Israeli doctors are also raising Mengistu’s situation with Gazans treated in Israeli hospitals, stressing the injustice of his incarceration.
“Our main focus now is to get some sort of sign of life and to have a doctor, any doctor, visit him,” Meidan said.
On Wednesday, the family met with Netanyahu and his coordinator for the issue, Yaron Blum.
“We told Netanyahu that he must not remain silent about Avera’s disappearance,” Ilan Mengistu said. He said the family implored the Israeli leader to let human rights groups, including the International Committee of Red Cross, take a greater role in the case. The meeting provided no new information, he said.
A statement issued by Netanyahu said there were both diplomatic and clandestine efforts aimed at securing the release of Mengistu and Sayed, a Bedouin Israeli who disappeared in April 2015, as well as the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers.
Later, Hamas released a statement denying any suggestion of negotiations “over a new prisoner exchange deal.”
In 2016, Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East, traveled to Gaza and later co-authored a report condemning Hamas for the inhumane treatment of Mengistu and Sayed, who both have serious mental health conditions.
“We had good access to Hamas officials, and we raised the fact that the two men are civilians,” Goldstein said. “We told Hamas this was a chance for them to change the way they are perceived and make a real humanitarian gesture.”
Among those he met with was Hamas co-founder Mohammed al-Zahar who, said Goldstein, “took a 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 they were imprisoned by Hamas, Goldstein said.
Multiple applications by Human Rights Watch to return to Gaza and continue work on this case have been denied by the Israeli authorities. COGAT, the military administration responsible for movement between Gaza and Israel, said an exception was made for the group in 2016 but that it was granted only one time.
Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a columnist at the Hamas-affiliated newspaper Al-Resalah, said the problem with resolving Mengistu’s case does not rest with Hamas.
“It is with the Israelis who are not interested in paying the price,” he said. “If Israel opened a channel of negotiation, then a deal would be achieved.”
Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and former deputy director general at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said the Israeli government’s hands are tied. He said the “Shalit affair” was a turning point for public opinion.
“The consequences of this agreement was that many of the Palestinian prisoners released went back to terrorism, actively participated in terrorist attacks and even killed Israeli citizens,” Michael said, adding, “Israel will not be willing to pay the price being asked by Hamas.”
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.