Monday, February 6th | 15 Shevat 5783

December 26, 2022 11:53 am

The World Has Forgotten Two Israelis Held by Palestinian Terrorists

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avatar by Benji Shulman


Hamas footage of Israeli captive Hisham al-Sayed. Photo: Telegram / screenshot

Where is Hisham? Where is Avera? It has been more than 3,000 days since Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen and member of the Ashkelon Ethiopian community, climbed over the border fence in Gaza and was captured by Hamas. His family has had zero contact with him since.

Roughly six months later, the same fate befell a 34-year-old who is part of Israel’s Bedouin community, Hisham al-Sayed, who crossed over into the terrorist-controlled enclave.What was the reason these young men ended up in the Gaza Strip? They have a long history of suffering from mental illness, and often wandered hundreds of kilometers from their homes.

On September 7, 2014, Avera was highly agitated; his mental well-being had begun to deteriorate after the tragic death of his brother. As a result, Avera left home and began to wander. Video surveillance showed that he took off and walked approximately 10 kilometers, where he was eventually spotted, unusually close to the Gaza border fence, by Israeli soldiers. The soldiers tried to get his attention; instead, he was startled and climbed over the border fence and disappeared into Gaza.

Hisham has a similar story. In the past, he had entered Jordan, the West Bank, and even Gaza, but he was always returned by security personnel who were aware of his mental status and vulnerability. In 2015, however, he was taken hostage by Hamas. Fast forward to now, and Hamas only released a video clip this year, which appears to show Hisham lying in a bed, looking dazed, and wearing an oxygen mask — the first sighting of him since he disappeared seven years ago.

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The holding of Hisham and Avera is a human rights violation on several counts.

Firstly, they are civilians who have no part in the war between Israel and Hamas, and cannot be held or treated as enemy combatants.

Secondly, withholding information about captives, as Hamas has done, amounts to an “Enforced Disappearance” and is illegal under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been signed by the Palestinians. It also goes against another piece of international law they signed, called The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which provides protections for people with psycho-social, or mental health disabilities, including freedom from inhuman treatment and equal access to justice.

Finally, any detainees have the right to contact their families and receive visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. All of these international rights are violated each moment that Hamas continues to hold Hisham and Avera hostage. Even the likes of Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, a fierce critic of Israel, has said that “Hamas’s refusal to confirm its apparent prolonged detention of men with mental health conditions and no connection to the hostilities is cruel and indefensible.”

In South Africa, there is a difficult history with the issue of illegal detention. Civilians were regularly abducted, beaten, tortured, and killed by the apartheid government. Yet, South Africa is one of the very few governments in the world that has relations with Hamas, even though the rest of the world considers them a terrorist organization. If the goal of South African foreign policy is dialogue and negotiation as it always claims, then the government should use these connections to impress upon Hamas the importance of granting these hostages basic rights under international law, never mind their unconditional release. Still, Hamas wishes to use these mentally ill civilians as a bargaining chip, in order to obtain the release of convicted Hamas terrorists in Israeli jails.

Given the global increase in mental health awareness over the last few years, one would think there would have been a wider global condemnation of Hamas’ actions. Tragically, and unacceptably, the world has remained largely silent.

The responsibility for highlighting the plight of Hisham and Avera is in the hands of the Jewish community, their allies, and ordinary citizens all over the world who can and must raise their voices against this injustice.

To help spread information about the incarceration of Hisham and Avera, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) will be working with Zionist youth movements at this year’s summer camps, running educational sessions, and handing out blue bracelets saying “Free Hisham and Avera.” This is in concert with the groups locally and globally who are also working on getting them released.

Hanukkah is a time of bringing light into a world of darkness. Very little else could be darker than being held for 3,000 days in Gaza, all alone, without access to family or communication. So this year, amid any celebrations, please take a moment to think of Hisham and Avera and help secure their release. That’s a modern miracle that we can achieve.

Benji Shulman is the Director of Public Policy for the South African Zionist Federation.

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