Israel announced Thursday that two Israelis, believed to be alive, are being held captive by Hamas in Gaza.

Two Israeli citizens have been held captive by Hamas in Gaza over the past several months, Israel officially announced Thursday. Their whereabouts are unknown, and Israel fears that their lives are in danger.

An Israeli security official announced that the Hamas terror organization has been holding Avraham Mengistu, 28, from Ashkelon, in the Gaza Strip since September 2014.

The official said the Israeli, of Ethiopian origin, crossed the border into the Gaza Strip last September shortly after Operation Protective Edge.

An army observation post saw him entering Gaza and alerted an IDF unit to the point of entry, but they arrived after he had crossed into the Strip and could do nothing to stop him.

The official said it is unclear why he entered Gaza and that he is believed to be mentally unstable. Israel does not consider him to be a captive and is treating the matter as a humanitarian issue, according to a statement by the IDF. Mengistu has been known to go missing for extended periods in the past.

The second Israeli citizen, a Bedouin from the town of Hura, entered Gaza a few months ago. No further details were released on his case.

He had crossed into Gaza several times before.

A spokesman for Hamas, Salah Bardawil, declined to comment. “We don’t have any information about it. Even if is true, we don’t have instructions to talk about it,” he said. Until this point, Hamas has been uncharacteristically silent on the issue.

The IDF knows that Mengistu was taken by Hamas immediately upon entering Gaza, but what happened afterwards is unclear.

Israel’s Ynet quotes a “senior Hamas official” as saying that Hamas did hold Mangistu for a period of time, but when they realized he was not an IDF soldier, they released him and he crossed into Egypt through one of the Hamas smuggling tunnels. Israel officially maintains that he is still held by Hamas.  

Gag Order Lifted

Reports on Mengistu appeared in the Palestinian media over recent months but were banned from publication in Israel by the security establishment. It is unclear why the ban has been lifted. Israeli officials declined immediate comment.

Reports surfaced on Wednesday that Israel attempted to negotiate with Hamas on the return of the abducted bodies of two IDF soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge last summer. These negotiations may be tied in with the issue of the two live Israelis in Gaza, which may have prompted the government to go public about it.

Israel’s Channel 2 said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in touch with Mengistu’s parents and that Lior Lotan, a retired Israeli army colonel, was handling negotiations to return Mengistu to Israel.

By: Max Gelber, United with Israel
AP contributed to this report.