Avera Mengistu reportedly jumped the Erez fence into Gaza through this route; his whereabouts remain unknown.

ANALYSIS: Does Hamas have a bargaining chip in negotiations?

PNN/Gaza

Israeli court’s lifting of a gag order today, concerning the disappearance of two Israeli citizens in Gaza, sheds some light on recent diplomatic attempts between Hamas and Israel, who have reportedly been holding indirect talks for months.

An Israeli of Ethiopian origin, Avera Mengistu, 28, was taken into Hamas custody 10 months ago when he disappeared into Gaza by jumping the Erez border fence. Less is known about the second citizen, a Palestinian Arab with Israeli citizenship who crossed into Gaza in April. The working assumption of Israeli officials is that both are being held by Hamas, but Mengistu’s whereabouts are unknown, Haaretz reports.

Mixed reports are emerging regarding Mengistu’s fate, and it remains unknown whether he is presently in Hamas custody, or if he was released through tunnels leading to Egypt shortly after Hamas confirmed he was not a soldier.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of two soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge last year, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. On Wednesday Haaretz confirmed that Israel has approached Hamas about discussing the return of the bodies, which Hamas subsequently refused to negotiate without a guarantee on the release of some 70 prisoners arrested in raids preceding the 2014 Gaza war. These prisoners were re-arrested during last summer’s hostilities despite having originally been released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.

Israel set a precedent for negotiating with Hamas in 2011, following an agreement with Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 prisoners held in Israeli detention.

That historic instance is a reliable indicator that the possible detention of two Israeli citizens, in addition to retaining the soldier’s bodies, constitutes a significant bargaining chip for Hamas in the ceasefire talks. Previously the announcement of indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel was accompanied by minimal information and would have seemed a tabloid fabrication at best, had it not been for the confirmation from anonymous sources on both sides. The lifting of the Israeli gag order and subsequent revelation of Israeli citizens in Hamas custody provides context for these negotiations to be set in motion.   

Avera Mengistu’s fate poses a potential threat to negotiations, as his whereabouts remain unknown with Hamas claiming he was released months ago.

An Israeli official told Haaretz that these claims are “intentional and organized lies”.

“[Hamas is] responsible for his fate,” the official said. He added that Hamas had kept the affair under wraps for two reasons: either to use him for negotiating purposes, or, “because something grave happened while he was being held”.

“If Hamas saw him as a bargaining chip, today’s publication will have a positive effect,” the official told Haaretz. “If the explosion of this affair leads to dialogue with Hamas on the matter, that would mean progress, as Hamas is hiding the truth.”

Information regarding the Arab with Israeli citizenship, confirmed in custody, remains under Israeli court gag order.