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.

The UAE-Israel Agreement: Winners and Losers

Aug. 19, 2020 – By Barbara Landau

Progressive Jews applaud the announcement that the United Arab Emirates and Israel have reached an historic agreement. The deal to normalize relations has been waiting since the Arab Initiative was offered in 2002. Steps toward peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours clearly benefit the Jewish state and increase stability and security cooperation amid threats from Iran and other radical states.

This historic and surprising announcement came on the heels of Donald Trump’s “Deal of a Century” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to unilaterally annex parts of the Jordan Valley. While Trump is claiming credit for this new deal, the applause really belongs to a loud chorus of voices, in particular from the UAE, as well as Jordan, the European Union, American political pundits, and the global progressive Jewish community, including a strong cooperative effort across Canadian Jewish organizations and the Reform movement.

There was consensus that both proposals were a major threat to any hope of a two-state solution or peace with the Palestinians. In jeopardy was the very success we are celebrating – warming relations with Arab neighbours. Our achievement is that unilateral annexation is now on hold and the future of Trump’s original deal has been at least temporarily mothballed.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief, we need to look at what was not included in this latest announcement.

First, annexation may not be off the table. Before the ink on the UAE deal was dry, Netanyahu was claiming that he intended to proceed with annexation after a period of “suspension.” This was to reassure his settler base, many of whom decried both Trump’s deal and UAE agreement because both leave open the possibility of a two-state resolution. They want one state incorporating all of “Judea and Samaria” without offering citizenship to Palestinians, a move that would again risk international condemnation. Whether settlers can rely on Netanyahu’s reassurance is thankfully open to question.

An optimistic view is that while applauding the agreement between the UAE and Israel as a significant step to counter the threat of Iran and other potential adversaries, Netanyahu will not jeopardize his return to celebrity status just when he faces corruption charges and widespread protests against his handling of COVID and the Israeli economy. Also, the UAE deal made it clear that “normalization of relations” is the payoff for no annexation.

For Trump, with an election looming, the applause is a welcome change of the channel from citizen unrest and widespread criticism. Even Democratic candidate Joe Biden has offered his blessing, giving Trump an opportunity to claim credit and appeal to his fragmenting American Jewish base. For now, Trump is clear that unilateral annexation is not in the cards, despite the contrary assurance by David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, that the delay is “for now.”

The question is, “what does Israel need to ensure its future as a peaceful and a democratic state?” While acceptance in the Arab world is very important, how critical is reaching a viable and just deal with the Palestinians? If it is essential, then the question is, “will this announcement help?”

The answer to that question is likely no. Yet again, the Palestinians played no role in the negotiations. They apparently were not consulted or even informed. Their status is yet again diminished, and they are understandably angry and feel betrayed.

This should be of concern to Israel because the likely result is further instability within the Palestinian Authority and a potential outpouring of frustration and despair directed at Israel. Such violence has largely been avoided because of the security cooperation between Israel and the P.A. that ended when Netanyahu announced his annexation plan.

While normalized relations with the UAE and potentially other Arab countries is news to celebrate, what is missing? As Diaspora Jews who care deeply about Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state, the elephant not in the room is the occupation – or ending it.

Where can we look for reassurance that peace will triumph? While the UAE and the U.S. claim that Netanyahu agreed to resume direct two-state negotiations, this was not spelled out in the text of the agreement. Netanyahu’s deafening silence about this in his triumphant announcement to Israelis means caution is warranted.  

What might cause concern? Recent years have seen serious challenges to Israel’s democracy and the prospects for peace: The “Nation State Law,” the continued settlement expansion, the undermining of civil rights of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, and the attacks on judicial independence. The unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the U.S. and the unilateral annexation of the Golan Heights are all in contradiction to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that put reciprocal demands on Israel in exchange for its considerable olive branch:  

The 2002 Arab Peace initiative…

…reaffirms the resolution taken in June 1996 at the Cairo extraordinary Arab summit that a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is the strategic option of the Arab countries, to be achieved in accordance with international legality, and which would require a comparable commitment on the part of the Israeli government. (Emphasis mine).

Arab Peace Initiative

The current UAE-Israel agreement makes no such explicit demand and leaves the occupation and creeping annexation in place. So while we celebrate today, what does the future hold for peace based on two states for two peoples? If this dream is erased, what is the alternative? My hope is that we will keep a watchful eye and continue our advocacy for a genuine and secure peace.


Barbara Landau
Dr. Barbara Landau

Dr. Barbara Landau is a lawyer, psychologist and mediator. She is a board member and chairs the Shared Society Committee of JSpaceCanada and is the Canadian representative on the J-Link Coordinating Committee. She participated in three Compassionate Listening peace-building missions to Israel and Palestine. She co-chairs the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM), is co-founder of “Together in Hope,” a Jewish, Palestinian/Arab women’s dialogue group. Barbara is a partner in Givat Haviva’s “Heart to Heart” Alumni Program, whose goal is building shared society for Jewish and Palestinian Israeli youth and their parents.