Avera Mengistu – a flawed focus on racism

For the past 10 months the family of Avera Mengistu has lived with trauma and uncertainty.  Their son has been missing in Gaza, his whereabouts and health unknown, with no sign of life. The fact that he crossed into the Strip willingly, and has a history of mental distress is probably of no consolation.

Avera  Mengistu. (Facebook)

Avera Mengistu. (Facebook)

They have also, it turns out, not been treated with the level of urgency and sympathy one would expect for the family of an Israeli citizen held in captivity by Hamas, and have not met in person with Prime  Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who didn’t respond to their letters asking about their son for 10 months.

On Thursday, hours after the story was cleared for publication, a recording was released of Colonel (res.) Lior Lotan, the prime minister’s representative dealing with hostage issues, scolding and threatening Mengistu’s family, telling them that if they go public and point fingers at the Israeli government they will be personally responsible for keeping him in Gaza for a year longer.

It was a disturbing display of insensitivity on his part, and his tone and conduct was perfect ammunition for those who see in the story of Mengistu’s captivity a microcosm of Israeli racism towards Ethiopian-Israelis. The Mengistu family was spoken to almost like children with a dismissive tone that suggested they were little more than a nuisance.

The feeling that an Ashkenazi family or a “veteran Israeli” family would not be treated this way is understandable and is derived from the discrimination that Ethiopian-Israelis feel. Still, the conclusion that Mengistu’s fate would be different if he was a white Israeli fails to take into account the unique specifics of this case, how it differs from that of previous prisoners like Gilad Shalit, and the changes that have taken place in Israeli society since Shalit was returned in 2011.

Gilad Shalit was part of a 4-man tank crew of active-duty soldiers stationed in a Merkava III tank within Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing when the tank was attacked by gunmen who had infiltrated by way of a tunnel from the Gaza Strip in the pre-dawn hours of June, 25th, 2006. The assault on the tank was part of a coordinated attack, as other gunmen shelled and opened fire on IDF positions elsewhere on the border with the Strip as a diversionary tactic. Two other members of the tank crew, Lieutenant Hanan Barak and Staff Sergeant Pavel Slutzker, were shot dead at the scene as they escaped the tank, a third crew member was wounded, and Shalit was taken by the attackers back through a hole in the security fence to the Gaza Strip, where he would be held captive for more than five years, until he was released in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners.

According to Israeli security officials, Mengistu left his family home on September 7, 2014 and made his way to the security fence with the northern Gaza Strip, crossing over the barrier near the seashore. Soldiers at the scene reportedly called on him to halt, but he ignored their calls and continued into Gaza. Mengistu, who has reportedly suffered from mental health issues and may have been drinking on the day of his disappearance, has not been heard from since.

By any measure the two cases are radically different. Nonetheless, since the story went public, social media has been rife with people comparing Mengistu’s case with that of Shalit arguing that if the young Ethiopian-Israeli man was an Ashkenazi boy, the story wouldn’t have been kept under a gag order and the state would have done far more to bring him home.

This comparison ignores the fact that there was no way to keep the Shalit abduction under a gag order because he did not simply vanish into thin air after leaving his family home in Mitzpe Hila one day – he was taken in a highly-sophisticated cross border raid during which two other soldiers were killed. There could be no gag order on his abduction. Second, the comparison seems to also ignore just how hard it was to get Shalit back home, how long it took, how many protests there were across Israel, the vigil camp set up outside the Prime Minister’s house, the very public, very concerted effort his father Noam led, not resting until his son was released. This was not a matter of the country realizing they lost a nice Ashkenazi kid and overnight deciding they had to get him back at any cost because his family roots were in Europe. It was a painful, drawn-out affair that was deeply traumatic to Israeli society, and probably the biggest news story of the entire five years he was in captivity.

Furthermore, if Shalit – as an Ashkenazi from the right type of family – was so valuable because of his ethnicity, then surely those commanders responsible for losing him to Hamas captivity in Gaza despite Shin Bet warnings of a pending attack must have paid a price right? Let’s see – then commander of the Gaza division, Aviv Kochavi, was later promoted to head Military Intelligence, and then GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant was later nominated as IDF Chief of Staff (though it was later withdrawn) and eventually became minister of housing. Neither of the two paid any price for the loss of a sacred white boy.

Another comparison that’s been made by some was to the story of Elhanan Tenenbaum, the (Ashkenazi) Israeli businessman and colonel in the IDF reserves who was kidnapped by Hezbollah in Dubai in 2000 after he traveled there for a drug deal. While it’s true he also traveled on his own volition like Mengistu, Tenenbaum was still in captivity for more than three years before he was returned in a painful prisoner exchange (along with the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed in a Hezbollah ambush at Har Dov in 2000), even though he was a colonel in the Northern Command and privy to secrets of great value to Hezbollah. It may also be obvious that when it was revealed he traveled to Dubai for a drug deal the Israeli public was furious and he has remained something of a pariah ever since.

Mengistu and the unnamed Beduin who crossed the fence months ago aren’t the only two Israelis in Gaza whose whereabouts are unknown. Hamas still holds the remains of soldiers Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul and 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, and as far as the public knows, no progress has been achieved returning them home.

If we’re still looking at the issue of ethnicity, Goldin’s fate does not seem to have been helped by him being Ashkenazi, or even by the fact that he’s a direct relative of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Perhaps most importantly though, any comparison to Shalit is problematic no matter the circumstances, because after the Shalit deal and the extreme price Israel paid to bring him home, the public and especially the political leadership have adopted a significantly more hardline stance on such exchanges. That’s not to say that another painful exchange is unthinkable, but any that follow the Shalit deal, no matter if they involve Ashkenazi soldiers or not, will be far more difficult for this country to stomach, especially if the Israeli they are negotiating for went willingly into the arms of his captors.

The gag order is a symptom of this reluctance for another painful prisoner exchange. With Mengistu’s status kept under  wraps, there is no public or media pressure to force a deal, and Hamas loses a great deal of their bargaining power in any potential exchange. With the gag order lifted, that equation changes.

One can easily understand the anger Ethiopian-Israelis feel about this story and the widespread assumption that if Mengistu was white, things would have played out differently. I don’t think you can blame them for feeling that way. Also, I think it’s quite likely that Lotan would have adopted a different tone with a “veteran Israeli” family, especially one with a serious security background. Nonetheless, by taking a step back and looking at the specifics of this story, one can tell that while racism, like in every story, plays some role, it is not the major defining factor in the fate of Avera Mengistu.

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