Editorial: Avera Mengistu is Still a Hamas Prisoner. Why?

Sept. 9, 2020 – There is a common myth in Israel that it will never desert one of its own. Israel has cooperated beyond courage to bring back those killed on the battlefield. IDF officials have negotiated in the past with Egypt, Jordan, the PLO, even terrorist groups, often trading hundreds of captive Palestinian terrorists and enemy combatants for the body of one IDF fighter.

Recall Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who, in June 2006, was captured by Hamas terrorists entering Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing through their intricate tunnel system. Shalit was kidnapped and held prisoner for more than five years.

Israel and the Shalit family, which had resources thanks to campaigns in Jewish communities worldwide, kept his name and his plight at the centre of events. In October 2011, following tense and often fractious negotiations through intermediaries, Shalit was finally released in exchange for some 1,000 Arab and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, 280 of whom were serving life terms for carrying out deadly attacks against Israeli targets.

The treasuring of each Israeli citizen was, and continues to be, the truest test of Israel’s character.

Sadly however, in the case of Avera Mengistu, the credo of “no Israeli left behind if captured by enemy combatants” does not seem to hold true. Some feel racism is to blame.

Mengistu and his large family arrived in Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 when he was five years old. Theirs was not an easy life. His father found it difficult to find work and the only income for the clan came from Avera’s mother, who cleaned homes in Ashkelon, near the Gaza border.

Avera’s life went from bad to worse following the death of his beloved eldest brother. He turned to friends for money, and his mental health became fragile to the point where he underwent psychiatric treatment. In March 2013, the IDF determined that Avera was not fit for military service. During this time, his mental health deteriorated even more.

A few months later, in circumstances that remain vague, Avera was seen near the Zikim beach on the Israeli-Gaza border. An IDF unit thought he was one of many Sudanese refugees who were trying to get into Gaza. He was last spotted near the security fence, and by the time Israeli border guards arrived, he had disappeared into Gaza. He has not been seen since.

There were some minor attempts to have him returned to Israel. All failed. In an interview with Al Jazeera, a senior Hamas official acknowledged that Avera was in Gaza. He claimed the Ethiopian was wearing a uniform, was mentally healthy, and was part of ongoing negotiations relating to the 2014 Gaza-Israel truce talks.

And this is where Avera’s fate has largely stood to this day. Unlike the case of Shalit, there has been little mass public outcry from Israeli authorities for his release. His family, who are among the poverty-stricken Ethiopians in Israel, have no resources to fight for his release.

There is an inescapable feeling that the reason Avera’s case is not being handled with the determination and seriousness of other kidnapped Israelis is because he’s Ethiopian – and Black. Indeed, one of Avera’s brothers, Yalo, noted in an interview with Ha’aretz that “it’s more than racism. I call it ‘anti-Blackism.’ I am one million percent certain that if he were white, we would not have come to a situation like this.”

Hamas has also not lost sight of the fact that Avera’s case has garnered little attention, though there have been sporadic reports of Hamas demands for a prisoner exchange with Israel for his release. Notably, Hamas has used the racial bias issue as a propaganda chip. On its Twitter platform, a Hamas message claimed “obviously the real Israeli motto is ‘leave no Ashkenazi (white Israeli) man behind.’”

This is a sad story of one man suffering from severe mental health problems. It seems sadly clear that both Israel and Hamas view the situation through the colour of his skin. It’s time that both sides see Avera as a man who must be returned to his family. His life matters and we cannot be silent.

Jewish/Palestinian Equality, Yes! A Joint Jewish/Palestinian state, Impossible!

By BOB KATZ

The writer Peter Beinart, a well-known and influential progressive Zionist, who had long advocated a two-state solution, recently reconsidered his principles. In a controversial and much-discussed essay, published in Jewish Currents in early July, he proposes an altogether different paradigm.

In his carefully written, well-researched essay, Beinart concludes that the traditional view of Zionism was no longer viable, a two-state solution was unachievable, and the only alternative to Israel becoming an apartheid state would be for it to forge an alliance with the Palestinians and create a unified state in which all citizens were equal. Most importantly, he emphasizes that if Israel continued to govern close to three million non-citizen, non-voting Palestinians on a fraction of the West Bank, it would be unable to avoid the “apartheid” label. And once the world came to regard Israel as an apartheid state, its days would be numbered.

Beinart recognizes that a one-state solution would require difficult compromises. At the same time, he points to the existence of two states within Belgium, notes South Africa’s successful transition to democracy, and proposes the example of the peace accord that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

Far from persuading me to abandon Zionism and accept a one-state solution, Beinart’s essay left me all the more convinced of the importance of Zionism, and the necessity of a two-state solution. At the same time, I am in full agreement with his bleak view that, if annexation continues, whether creeping or formal, Israel will fit the definition of apartheid, in which case it will not be able to survive the type of international condemnation that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Beinart describes the logic and benefits of a unified Jewish-Palestinian state but does not offer a plan to bring about a union. Instead, he points to the largely successful integration of Palestinian Israelis into the pre-1967 borders and observes that, given Israel’s control of the West Bank, “Israel-Palestine is already binational.” He posits that education and income parity would lead to workable compromises for all Palestinians. Over the past 53 years, Israel and the Palestinians have failed to negotiate a two-state solution. There is no reason to assume that the two sides – three if you consider Gaza a separate entity – will do any better negotiating a one-state solution.

Beinart’s assertion that it would be feasible for Jews and all Palestinians to unite within a peaceful state, such as exists in present day Israel, ignores the fact that the Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship have a very different recent history than the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. It would require the integration of dispossessed people who have long seen the PLO and Hamas as their only prospects for freedom from a Zionist tyranny.

Beinart dreams of a unified state with a constitution in which both Jews and Palestinians would have equal rights. Even with constitutional protections, it is not hard to imagine both sides attempting to dominate the other. Whatever constitutional rights Armenians once had in the Ottoman Empire were extinguished by 1923 with virtually no intervention from the outside world. Iran was a multi-cultural state until it felt a need to deal with apostates such as their Baha’i, Zoroastrian and Jewish minorities. In Iraq, Sunnis persecuted Shiites until Saddam Hussein was overthrown, at which time the Shiites persecuted the Sunnis. And everyone persecuted the Kurds.

The author argues that extremists would be mollified in a state in which all peoples were full citizens with equal rights. A quick change of heart would be inconceivable. A unified state would have to persuade crazed Jewish settlers and suicidal Hamas fighters to set aside their murderous practices in the interests of peace with their mortal enemies.

Beinart’s essay does not deal with a division of so-called “holy sites.” The tombs of Hebron are sacred to Jews and to Muslims. A binational state of Israel would have to reconcile the legitimate concerns of Hebron’s Palestinians, whose Jewish extremist persecutors have erected a statue to honour Baruch Goldstein as well as the fears of indigenous Jews who remain haunted by the 1929 Hebron Massacre. Beinart also ignores the interests of fundamentalist Christians, who believe that only if there is a Jewish state in Israel can there be a Second Coming. 

Beinart discusses Gaza, pre-1967 Israel, and the West Bank as if they were in a bubble, free from external forces. Guaranteeing the security of Jews in a binational state would require more than a peace between Palestinians and Jews. Just as many Jews deny the rights of Palestinians in the interests of a truly Jewish state (see: Israel’s Basic Law, enacted in 2018), many Muslims dream of an all-Muslim Middle East. In 1948, five Arab nations attacked Israel with the stated purpose of preventing a Zionist entity from existing in the Middle East. 

The principal reason the Egyptian and Jordanian governments currently recognize Israel is because, at least for now, cooperation is a more viable alternative than war. The principal reason the Sunni states, which are still at war with Israel, no longer emphasize destroying the Zionist entity is because, at least for now, they are more worried about Iran. There is no reason to assume that Iran would be any better disposed to a Jewish power-sharing relationship in a binational Israeli-Palestinian state than they are to sharing power with the indigenous Jews who still live within their borders. 

Beinart’s bubble ignores the fact that members of non-Islamic religions are in decline in most Middle Eastern states. The Christian population in all of the Sunni states has shrunk dramatically in the past century. Lebanon has been shattered by sectarian wars. Christians leave their homelands because they believe that they live in countries that, with the possible exception of Syria, want the Middle East to be entirely Muslim, as the Prophet Muhammad ordained. In Egypt, there have been frequent slaughters of Coptic Christians, whose population has declined by roughly 25 percent in the past 60 years. In a unified state, Jews would be a tiny minority surrounded by a sea of Islamic states that have rarely shown good will to their Jewish populations.

Beinart proposes post-apartheid South Africa as a model of a successful binational state and points out that white Afrikaners’ fear of violence proved unwarranted once the majority Black population gained equal rights. The example of South Africa becomes less compelling when one considers how badly integration fared in Rhodesia, South Sudan, the former Ethiopia, or post-partition Pakistan. Bi-nationalism also failed in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen.

Northern Ireland is for Beinart another example of an apparently intractable conflict resolved once a peace accord was in place. However, the issues that divided Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were very different than the issues dividing Jews and Palestinians. In Northern Ireland, historical grievances notwithstanding, the two adversaries were English-speaking, white-skinned Christians. Neither party was divided by differing Biblical commandments or shared holy sites.

Moreover, the example of Northern Ireland’s generally, successful transition to coexistence becomes less compelling when contrasted with the example of the former Yugoslavia, where a functional, post-war coexistence collapsed into mayhem following the 1980 death of Marshal Tito. 

In Northern Ireland, with Ireland to the south and England to the east, Catholics and Protestants each had neighbors with an interest in “their people” and keeping the peace. Israel does not have any neighbours who see the Jews as “their people.” 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu required three elections before he could form a precarious coalition with “Alternate” Prime Minister Benny Gantz. Although Likud’s and Kahol Lavan’s ideologies are similar, they are just barely cooperating. And neither party was willing to cooperate with HaReshima HaMeshutefet (the Joint List). A country that could not welcome Israeli Arabs from HaReshima HaMeshutefet into a coalition would be even less likely to accept Fatah as a partner—or Hamas as the opposition. 

I am in strong agreement with Beinart’s belief that unless a just and democratic solution is found for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel will become an apartheid state, subject to constant security threats from within and without its borders. I have a keen recollection of how the collective efforts of the Commonwealth turned South Africa into a pariah state, even as Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, emphasized that they were “our kith and kin.” There is no prospect of a successful binational Jewish-Palestinian state! The future of Israel and Zionism depends on Jews and Palestinians each being able to live in prosperous democratic states of their own. 


Bob Katz is a member of Canadian Friends of Peace Now’s national board and chairperson of the Toronto chapter.