JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Friday to bring back home two Israeli citizens held captive in Gaza as he visited the family of one of the men.
Netanyahu’s remarks came a day after Israel’s stunning announcement that two men — Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, and a Bedouin from Israel’s Arab minority whose identity is still under a gag order — are being held captive in the Gaza Strip.
Earlier Friday, the families complained to Israeli media over their treatment by government officials, saying their anguish is being ignored.
Netanyahu said Israel is doing everything it can to bring both men home. He met with the Mengistu family in the south of the country on Friday afternoon.
“We face a very cruel and cynical enemy that denies the most basic humanitarian duty of returning innocent civilians home to their country,” he said. “We will not relent and will do everything necessary to bring these citizens home.”
According to COGAT, the defense body that handles civilian issues with the Palestinians, Mengistu disappeared after he “independently” crossed the border fence and entered Gaza on Sept. 7, two weeks after the end of last summer’s war between the Islamic militant group Hamas and Israel.
Israeli media reported he had been distraught at the time of his disappearance.
The second man is a Bedouin Arab citizen from southern Israel. Israeli officials have refused to identify him or say how long he had been in Gaza or how he got there. They also would not say which group had him in custody.
The case was only allowed to be made public on Thursday — months after the two disappeared — while a gag order is still in place on some of the details surrounding the two men.
Thousands of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, many of them secretly airlifted into the country in 1984 and 1990, but their absorption into Israeli society has been difficult. Although they are Jewish, Ethiopian community members complain of discrimination and police harassment.
Bedouins make up a small group within Israel’s Arab minority, numbering about 180,000. Some live in organized townships while others still reside in desert tents to stay closer to their nomadic traditions.
Earlier Friday, the man identified as a relative of the missing Bedouin told Israel Radio that “nobody is talking to us, this isn’t nice.” The relative’s identity also falls under the same gag order.
Another man, only identified by his first name Khaid and said to be someone who knows the Bedouin man well, told Army Radio that the Bedouin had gone missing several times before in Gaza but had been sent back.
On Thursday night, Channel 10 TV broadcast a recording of government official Lior Lotan, a Netanyahu negotiator, chastising the Mengistu family for pressing Netanyahu for answers on the case. Lotan apologized publicly on Friday.
Mengistu’s uncle, Tzachi Malasa, told Army Radio that he feels his family is being treated badly “because he’s black,” referring to his nephew.
Israeli officials have in the past said that publicity surrounding cases of missing Israelis makes the process of bringing captives home longer and tougher.
For Israelis, captivity of their citizens is an emotionally charged issue. Captured soldier Gilad Schalit was held hostage in Gaza for more than five years, until he was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many involved in bloody attacks against civilians, in 2011.
Netanyahu said Thursday he held Hamas, the Islamic militant group which has ruled Gaza since seizing control of the territory in 2007, responsible for the fate of both men. Israel was working to free them and that he had appointed a representative to deal with the matter, he said.
But there were no threats of action against Hamas, in contrast to a bruising military campaign that followed Hamas’ capture of Schalit in a 2006 cross-border raid — or more recently, the arrests of scores of Hamas supporters after the deadly abductions of three Israeli teens in the West Bank last year.
The teenagers’ slaying by Palestinian gunmen set off a string of events that culminated in a 50-day war that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza and 73 people on the Israeli side. It was their third war since the Hamas takeover.
Also Friday, opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party wrote on his Facebook page that if he was prime minister he would have “embraced the family from the first moment and not waited until pressure from the media and public forces him to make contact.”