(Courtesy Family via AP)
Avera Mengistu

“Hamas is holding [my brother] as part of a political game against Israel. Holding a man with special needs as a hostage—this is very cruel,” declared Ilan Mengistu.

By: Josh Hasten/JNS.org

Outside the walls of the Old City, the families of two mentally ill Israeli citizens currently being held prisoner by Hamas in Gaza pleaded for their return.

That was the message of a Sept. 6 press conference at the Jerusalem Press Club, where an emphasis was placed on the poor mental health of the captives.

Avera Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, and Hisham Al Sayeed, a member of the Israeli Bedouin community, accidentally crossed the border fence with Gaza in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Neither family has since seen signs of life from their loved ones, both taken in their mid-20s and who would be about age 30 now.

Following the press conference, an interfaith show of support was held as a Bedouin sheikh and a Jewish Ethiopian Kes offered words of solace for the families.

At the gathering, Ilan Mengistu said that his “younger brother Avera crossed into Gaza, and was not aware of his actions.” He explained that following the death of another brother in the family, Avera had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. However, he said that Avera was released before he was mentally stable.

“Hamas is holding him as part of a political game against Israel,” he said. “Holding a man with special needs as a hostage—this is very cruel.” Ilan called directly on Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar to “act as a human being, and take into account his mental well-being and release him today.”

He also directed his remarks to global humanitarian organizations and leaders, including the International Red Cross, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom and president of the European Union Donald Tusk, saying “they must find a way to bring us a sign of life. Please be our partners in saving their lives.”

Addressing his brother directly in front of the cameras, Ilan concluded his remarks by saying, “Avera, my brother, if you can hear me, we love you. There isn’t a day that goes by that we aren’t working to set you free. Be strong for your mother and father; we all love you. It’s the eve of Rosh Hashana, and I wish you from the bottom of my heart a year of freedom and health, and may you be signed in the book of life. I love you.”

Linking a peace agreement with the captives’ return

Next, Sha’aban Al Sayeed, Hisham’s father, also called on the international humanitarian organizations to help bring his son home. He blamed Hamas for “trying to tie this into the 2014 military conflict [between Israel and Hamas], but this is not the case.”

He emphasized that “the two boys have no connection to this. They are sick and have no connection to politics, soldiers—nothing. Why does Hamas use this as political cards? This is not logical!”

Sha’aban then said that Hamas doesn’t have the interests of the Palestinian people in mind. “We call on the Palestinians, whether in Gaza or all over the world,” to demand the release of the boys, he stressed.

When the families were asked if they felt confident that the Israeli government will not sign a peace agreement with Hamas without including the return of their sons as part of the deal, Sha’aban answered: “We don’t want to believe this. We believe it won’t happen. We hope there is a connection between an agreement and the returning of the boys.”

Ilan added: “We are following the news, and this is an opportunity the government must not miss. In our conversations with the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] and defense minister [Avigdor Lieberman], we say that an agreement can’t be reached without taking all of its sons into consideration.”

Sha’aban also thanked U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt for his work in helping bring the Israelis home.

Ran Goldstein, director of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, concluded the press conference saying that holding Mengistu and Al Sayeed is “an act of cruelty which violates every moral principle and international law. They both suffer from serious mental problems, and they have the right to be protected against exploitation and physical abuse.”

He said that while he has medical delegations entering Gaza to perform surgeries and supply medical aid every six to seven weeks, “so far, we have failed to receive any information on their condition. We were told they are alive, but we haven’t been given real evidence.”

At the conclusion of question-and-answer session, the Bedouin sheikh spoke in Arabic about the need to return the boys with the approach of the Jewish New Year, while the Kes added in Amharic that “families will not be celebrating as a whole family unit; they will not be together for the holidays. We are calling on the leaders of Hamas to let them go. This is the only human way to act.”



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