Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday visited relatives of a citizen reportedly held captive by Hamas after a top aide apologised for telling them he would suffer if they went public.
Avraham Mengistu is one of two Israelis whose suspected detention in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip was revealed Thursday after a gag order was lifted.
The defence ministry confirmed that Mengistu, of Ethiopian descent, was missing, presumed held captive, since crossing into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip last September.
The lifting of a 10-month gag order allowed private Channel 10 television to air audio of Lior Lotan -- coordinator of prisoner of war and missing in action affairs in Netanyahu`s office -- haranguing Mengistu`s family.
"He has apologised for both the tone and content of the conversation," an official told AFP.
Netanyahu`s office said the premier had an hour-long meeting with the family at their Ashkelon home.
"We are doing everything in our ability to return Avra to Israel, just as we are in contact with the family of the other Israeli citizen in order to bring him back to Israel as well," Netanyahu said afterwards.
Israel does not allow its citizens to enter Gaza, partly over fears that they may be used as bargaining chips to demand concessions including the release of prisoners.
Israel strove to keep the pair`s plight secret to the extent that then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and members of the parliamentary defence and foreign affairs committee said they had been kept totally unaware.
Parliament admitted a failure in its intelligence oversight subcommittee.
"In this case it appears that there was a specific failure. We shall study the case and ensure that it is not repeated," it said late Thursday.
The second Israeli believed held captive in Gaza is an Arab, about whom details are still under court-imposed restrictions.
Mengistu belongs to Israel`s 135,000-strong ethnic Ethiopian community which says it suffers from racism and discrimination.Members have staged several rallies against alleged police brutality and racism in recent months, some of which turned violent.
"Anyone who makes Avera into a story about relations between the Ethiopian community and the state of Israel will leave him in Gaza for another year," Lotan is heard telling Mengistu`s family, using the name by which he is known to friends and relatives.
"If we aren`t together, we will make mistakes and Hamas will translate them into another year or another price," he said.
Israeli media condemned the comments as patronising and insensitive.
"I cannot recall a conversation as repulsive as the one we heard yesterday," Sima Kadmon wrote in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.
"All he had to say to them sounded like a series of threats and intimidations."
In 2011, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held by Hamas for five years.
Writing in Maariv, commentator Eitan Haber, an adviser to late premier Yitzhak Rabin, said Netanyahu was anxious to avoid a reprise of the Shalit affair, which saw public opinion sharply divided for and against the mass release.
"The prime minister did not and does not want to repeat the same manoeuvre in which dozens of life prisoners, who were supposed to take their last breath within the confines of an Israeli prison, were freed," Haber wrote.
"(He) understood that publicity was a double-edged sword, and was raising the price of any Israeli being held by terror organisations across the border."
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog criticised Netanyahu on Facebook for "waiting until media pressure and public opinion" obliged him to contact the Mengistu family.
In indirect negotiations for the return of remains of two Israel soldiers killed during the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas is demanding the release of Palestinians freed in the Shalit deal and late returned to prison for what Israel said were new offences.
A member of the Hamas political bureau in Gaza told AFP the matter was in the hands of the group`s armed wing.
However, he said "nothing is for free", speaking on condition of anonymity. "In advance of any discussion Hamas demands the release of all the prisoners freed in the swap for Gilad Shalit and subsequently re-arrested."