Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel is actively seeking the return of two of its citizens who crossed into the Gaza Strip, and are likely being held by Hamas.
The announcement of the Israeli government’s intentions to locate the missing men, made following months of secrecy, came after the country’s military lifted a publication ban that had been in place since last September.
Israel’s defence ministry has identified one of the two men as Avraham Mengistu, 26, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent. The second Israeli citizen being held, who has not been named, is a Bedouin Arab man from Israel’s Negev desert, said the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, the Israeli defence body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs.
According to the Associated Press, COGAT has said Mengistu disappeared after he “independently” crossed the border fence into the Gaza Strip on September 7 last year, nearly two weeks after Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza agreed to a long-term ceasefire.
No details have emerged as to how long the second man has been held in Gaza, how he got there or which group is holding him, the Associated Press has reported.
Releasing the following statement, Netanyahu said: “We are working to return the two Israelis who crossed the fence into Gaza. We hold Hamas responsible for their welfare. I have appointed a special representative to coordinate all activity on the issue and to be in contact with the families.
“Yesterday I spoke with the parents and siblings of Avraham Mengistu and I told them that from as soon as the incident became known we have spared no effort to return him to Israel.”
Anticipating international commentary, Netanyahu added: “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.”
Declining to explain his organization’s side of the story, Salah Bardawil, a spokesman for Hamas, told the Associated Press: “We don’t have any information about it. Even if it is true, we don’t have instructions to talk about it.”
Speaking to the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem, Yaakov Peri, an Israeli MP and former director of the Shin Bet intelligence agency, said there were several cases of people crossing the fence with the Gaza strip each year.