Israeli authorities say two citizens are being held by Hamas in Gaza

Israeli authorities revealed Thursday that two Israeli citizens had disappeared into the Gaza Strip over the last year, adding yet another unresolved issue between Israel and Hamas in the wake of last summer’s combat in the coastal enclave.

Following requests from Israeli media, a court lifted a long-standing gag order to reveal that 28-year-old Avraham Avera Mengistou of Ashkelon crossed the border fence into Gaza in September and has been missing since.

The second civilian was identified only as an Arab Israeli from a Bedouin community in southern Israel who appears to have entered Gaza through the Erez crossing in April. His name remains barred from publication.

Both men appear to have crossed into Gaza of their own volition and were described by acquaintances and family as unstable.

The whereabouts and condition of both men remain unknown. Israel’s working assumption is that Mengistou, an Ethiopian Israeli, is being held in Gaza by Hamas, which has refused to confirm it is holding either citizen.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is “sparing no efforts” to secure their release and that he appointed a special coordinator to handle efforts and liaison with the families.

“We are working to return the two Israelis who crossed into Gaza and we hold Hamas responsible for their well-being,” Netanyahu said in a statement.  

The prime minister urged the international community “that expresses its concern with the humanitarian situation in Gaza” to sound a clear call for their release.

The information about Mengistou’s disappearance was reported months ago on Arab networks and on social media. However, it was barred for publication by Israeli outlets until Thursday, and the anxious family had complied with the government’s request for silence.

In a brief statement to journalists outside the family home in Ashkelon, Yalo Mengistou urged Israel to retrieve his brother, whose ill health made the matter a humanitarian issue.

“We ask the government of Israel to bring him back home safely,” he said, urging the international community to intervene as well. “I also ask of Hamas to take my brother’s condition into account and release him immediately.”

The news emerged a year after the start of the deadly conflict Israel waged against Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza.

The 50 days of fighting, which left more than 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis dead, came to a halt with a cease-fire in late August. Three-way talks in Cairo with Egyptian mediators to secure a more long-term truce fizzled out within weeks, leaving open a long list of issues.

Among those are the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, still held by Hamas. Although denied by Israel, reports have persisted in recent months of indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over this issue and the possibility of allowing a sea corridor between Cyprus and Gaza instead of a creating the deep-sea port desired by the coastal enclave, an idea repeatedly floated since 2009.

The news of two Israeli captives introduces a new element that could complicate matters further. Though Israel is highly sensitive to the subject and has gone to great lengths to win the release captives in the past, fierce public and political criticism over the high price of such deals could make this a test case.

Hamas would not confirm holding the captives and appeared to demand a price for any information, a potential boon for the movement.

Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader from the West Bank, told Israel Radio that the militant movement would divulge nothing until Israel frees 60 Hamas followers who were jailed anew last year after being among 1,000 prisoners released in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Yousef was included in the same exchange, rearrested and only recently released from jail.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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