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Can the Trump Administration Help an Israeli Held by Hamas?

The family says it’s not about politics. But might politics help them?

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in November 2017. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in November 2017. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Three years ago, Avera Mengistu, a mentally ill Israeli man, scaled a wall at the Gaza border and was promptly taken prisoner by Hamas. In Israel, the case has proved divisive, with some alleging that the government has treated Mengistu, who is of Ethiopian descent, differently than other cases.

Last week, the Mengistu family was in Washington, where they had meetings with officials from Jewish organizations, Congress, the State Department, and the White House, among others, in the hopes that someone — anyone — might help an abductee who, they worry, isn’t too high on anyone’s list of priorities.

The Trump administration has touted some success in freeing Americans abroad, including Otto Warmbier, who was freed from North Korea while in a coma (and subsequently died), and three college basketball players, who were released from China after facing shoplifting charges.

While Mengistu is not American, the case demonstrates how some of the families of those detained abroad are turning to Washington for help.

That approach has already achieved some modest success. Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump’s special representative for international relations, tweeted about the case Wednesday, calling it “outrageous that Hamas will not let him return home or communicate with his family.”

Whether that attention can translate into action is another matter. “Washington has a lot of issues to focus on in the region,” said Khaled Elgindy of Brookings, a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership. Case in point: On Saturday, the Palestinians said they would cease communication with the United States if the Trump administration made good on its threat to close the diplomatic office of the PLO mission in the American capital.

“I don’t know how long they’ll be able to hold the attention of people here in Washington,” Elgindy said. “But they’re going to try.”

The Mengistu family moved to Israel from Ethiopia in the 1990s, Ilan Mengistu, Avera’s brother, told Foreign Policy through a translator in the Israeli Embassy. His brother Michael acclimated most easily and helped the rest of the family. After Michael passed away at age 31 in 2011, Avera, then 25, had a mental breakdown. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put in psychiatric hospitals twice between 2011 in 2014. That was the year he wandered into Gaza.

Ilan said he was angry at first. His first thought was along the lines of, “Really? You had to go and wander into Gaza?” But his brother wasn’t mentally well, Ilan said. It wasn’t his fault. Security cameras documented him as he scaled the border fence and went into the Gaza Strip. Security forces confirmed he had been captured by Hamas. (The Israeli Embassy would not say whether the government had been in contact with Hamas over the case, or say whether or how this case proves a challenge to typical protocol for dealing with Hamas.)

“I don’t even know if he’s alive,” his mother, Agranesh Mengistu, told FP. And no government or organization has been able to reach him. “Hamas,” she said, “has proven to be stronger than the Red Cross.”

There was initially a media blackout over Avera’s case, and, even after it was lifted, those involved tried to keep the situation quiet.

“They didn’t want to ‘up the value’ of this individual to them and therefore cause Hamas to try to extort more from them,” Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told FP. “That obviously didn’t work, and in fact there was complete radio silence [from Hamas], and that’s also important context.”

Pletka said there is likely “a level of embarrassment” that Mengistu “hadn’t gotten equal treatment with, for example, soldiers who had disappeared.”

Even Hamas has played up Israel’s seemingly low-key approach to the Mengistu case.

“Obviously, the real Israeli motto is ‘leave no Ashkenazi man behind,’” Hamas tweeted in 2015, drawing a seeming comparison, as Ynetnews noted at the time, between Avera’s case and that of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. (Shalit was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.)

Other Israeli media have also debated whether Avera’s case is dealt with differently because he is of Ethiopian descent.

But Elgindy stressed that the trip takes place in a broader geopolitical context, noting that it comes as Hamas and the Palestinian Authority began implementing a reconciliation agreement, which the Trump administration — somewhat surprisingly — didn’t “vocally and openly oppose.”

“This may be a way for Israel to assert pressure on the Trump administration,” he added.

But the Mengistu family says they aren’t interested in U.S. foreign policy. Asked by FP whether they were concerned that their case will be blown away in the winds of geopolitics, Ilan replied, “We’re not analysts. We can’t decide if it impacts Middle East politics.”

Their commitment, he said through the translator, is just to their brother and son.

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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