Where is Avera Mengistu? Unsolved anguish for Israeli man's family

Story highlights

  • Avera Mengistu's family hasn't seen him since he walked into Gaza on September 7, 2014
  • Mengistu suffers from mental illness, his family says; efforts to secure his release have failed
  • "We see Hamas as responsible for bringing him back safely," legislator says

Ashkelon, Israel (CNN)For months, Agernish Mengistu waited in pained silence, praying for the answers that never came. Her son Avera Mengistu has been missing for nearly a year, Israeli authorities say, after he walked along the Zikim beach near his home and into Gaza.

"A year has passed. I don't know what he's doing," says Agernish Mengistu, wiping away the tears that keep coming back. "It's breaking me."
    Agernish Mengistu has not seen or heard from her son since the day he went missing: September 7, 2014. Now he is being held by Hamas, according to the government, but the updates stopped coming long ago.
    Mengistu, 28, is an Ethiopian-Israeli from the city of Ashkelon in southern Israel. His family says he suffers from mental illness, which only got worse with his brother's death three years ago.
    Israel worked to secure his release behind the scenes, says a senior government official, but the attempts were ultimately unsuccessful. In the weeks of frustration that followed, Mengistu's family took their story public, appealing to Hamas to release him. They have now launched a campaign to raise awareness of Mengistu's story, hoping to pressure the international community to act.
    "We tried to appeal to them in quiet and secret channels, through the Red Cross, through the military," says Ilan Mengistu, Avera's older brother. "We're talking about an innocent person. Release him. You insist you're a law-abiding organization. And we're very sorry to say that the appeal fell on deaf ears."

    Conflicting reports of his whereabouts

    Mengistu's family and friends protested outside of the Erez border crossing into Gaza, blocking the road that leads to the facility's entrance and chanting "Free Avera Mengistu!" They stopped Palestinians exiting Gaza, asking them to take their message back into Gaza when they return.
    "I say to Hamas, this should be something good for them. If the world will see that you are truly returning my brother, they will see you as a law-abiding political organization and they will acknowledge this. At the moment, holding him is only hurting them."
    In the days after Mengistu crossed into Gaza, Hamas announced that they were holding Israeli prisoners, but there are conflicting reports as to whether Mengistu is still in Gaza or has crossed into Egypt.
    "A couple weeks after that, [Hamas] told us, 'Yes, we know that he was in Gaza, but he was in Gaza and left to Egypt.' We know that's not true, and he is still probably held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip," said Member of the Knesset Yaakov Peri, the former coordinator for the Prime Minister's Office of Israel's prisoners of war and those missing in action.
    "We see Hamas as responsible for bringing him back safely."
    But Hamas refuses to divulge any information about Mengistu, instead deferring to their military wing, the Qassam Bridages.
    "The only one who has information about him is al-Qassam, so that's why we don't have answers for any questions regarding this Mengistu," says Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisor to Hamas.

    'We have a basic right to see him'

    Mengistu's fate may now be linked to Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held hostage in Gaza for more than five years, from 2006 to 2011. According to Yousef, the Qassam Brigades will only release information about Mengistu if Israel agrees to release 50 Hamas members currently held in Israeli prisons. According to Yousef, they were among 1,027 Palestinians released as part of a deal to free Shalit in October 2011, but they were later rearrested.
    "If Israel would like to get some information about this guy, they should release all those Hamas members who are being freed in the Shalit deal and the Israelis recaptured them and put them in jail," adds Yousef.
    Yousef also insists that Mengistu was an Israeli soldier, not just a civilian. Mengistu's family provided CNN with paperwork showing that Mengistu was released from military service because of his mental illness.
    At home in Ashkelon, Ilan Mengistu insists his family has no interest in politics. They just want to see Avera Mengistu back home.
    "We don't have problems, not against the Palestinians or against Hamas," says Ilan Mengistu. "Truly, every person has a right to live and be free. We have a basic right to see him, give him medical treatment, see what his situation is. They're preventing us from getting it."