New hostage crisis feared as Israel says two held in Gaza

Two Israelis are being held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip after having crossed into the Palestinian territory, Israeli officials said on Thursday, raising fears of another hostage crisis.

AFP| Updated: Jul 09, 2015, 22:58 PM IST

Ashkelon: Two Israelis are being held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip after having crossed into the Palestinian territory, Israeli officials said on Thursday, raising fears of another hostage crisis.

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, and critics said that would encourage further abductions.

And the Shalit case already appears to be having a bearing on this one, with a Hamas official saying former prisoners re-arrested by Israel last year must be freed before there is any talk about releasing the Israelis.

The defence ministry said that, "according to credible intelligence" Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, "is being held against his will by Hamas in Gaza."

Mengistu had "independently crossed the security fence" into Gaza, the Palestinian territory ruled by Hamas, a statement said.

"The defence establishment is currently dealing with an additional case of an Israeli Arab also being held in Gaza," it said, without elaborating.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the two were "held by Hamas," and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "we hold Hamas responsible for their welfare."

"I expect the international community, which expresses its concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, to issue a clear call to release the citizens and ensure their return," Netanyahu said in a statement.

The defence ministry said Mengistu entered the Palestinian territory on September 7, shortly after last summer's war between Israel and Hamas.

Israel does not allow its citizens to enter Gaza, partly out of fears that they may be used as bargaining chips to demand concessions, including the release of prisoners.

The case had been kept quiet due to an Israeli gag order, which was lifted today by a judge in the southern city of Ashkelon, where Mengistu lived, local media reported.

The reports said information on the Israeli Arab was still under a gag order, but implied he had been missing for a number of months.

Mengistu's family briefly addressed journalists outside their home today, calling on Hamas to release him and the Israeli government to work toward his safe return.

"The family chose until now to remain discreet," said brother Asho Mengistu, surrounded by other family members, including his mother, who had tears in her eyes.

Asho Mengistu said his brother was not in good health but did not provide details.

Members of Israel's 135,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community say they suffer from racism and discrimination. They have staged several rallies against alleged police brutality and racism in recent months.