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Michael Hilkowitz
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Did you know that Hamas has held 2 hostages captive for thousands of days?

If we don't bring them all home now, the hostages are at real risk of being stuck in Gaza for years and years, like Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed
A soldier walks past a painted poster of Hisham Al-Sayed (R) and Avera Mengistu (L), two Israelis held by Hamas since 2014, when they crossed into Gaza, during a press conference organized by the captives' families calling for their release, in Jerusalem, on September 6, 2018. (THOMAS COEX / AFP)
A soldier walks past a painted poster of Hisham Al-Sayed (R) and Avera Mengistu (L), two Israelis held by Hamas since 2014, when they crossed into Gaza, during a press conference organized by the captives' families calling for their release, in Jerusalem, on September 6, 2018. (THOMAS COEX / AFP)

Since October 7th, the Israeli and international media have been inundated with stories about the hostages. We have come to know the names, faces, and stories behind so many victims of unspeakable horror. When Hamas breached the border on that sunny morning, they thrust Israel into uncharted territory. For almost three months, the families of the victims, the Israeli public, and the world have anxiously awaited any updates or information. Discussions about the propriety of making a deal with Hamas for the exchange of hostages for prisoners fill the Israeli media. Yet, amidst the posters, articles, photos, and stories of the victims, it is crucial for Israel and the world to keep these innocent hostages taken by Hamas at the forefront.

Regrettably, two names, faces, and stories have not found their way into the media. Unfortunately, these are the two that are most important to highlight right now — not because they are more worthy of attention, but because the world has the most to learn about the situation from them. While the families of the October 7th hostages count the days since their loved ones were brutally taken from them, the families of Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed are counting their days in the thousands since they last saw their loved ones. For more than 3,000 days, Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed have been held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. For more than 3,000 days, their families have waited for Hamas and Israel to come to terms to bring their loved ones home.

Avera Mengistu came to Israel with his family from Ethiopia when he was 5 years old. Mengistu began suffering from mental illness when his older brother died in 2011. He began to wander away from home, often traveling hundreds of kilometers before being found. He has been hospitalized for treatment and medication, but on September 7, 2014, he was off his medication and wandered the 20 kilometers (nearly 12.5 miles) from his home in Ashkelon to the Gaza border, managing to cross into Gaza. He was taken by Hamas and has been held captive in Gaza since. He has not had access to the Red Cross or any mental health services for his condition during that time. Trying to imagine what Mengistu has gone through since his kidnapping is horrifying.

Hisham Al-Sayed is an Israeli Bedouin who, like Mengistu, suffers from mental illness, leading him to cross the Gaza border in 2015, where he was taken by Hamas, and has been held in captivity ever since. Al-Sayed’s mental and physical health problems are severe and extensive, including tinnitus, vertigo, acute psychotic disorder, and schizophrenia. For eight years, he has been held by Hamas without access to the Red Cross or health care services. To hold someone with Al-Sayed’s health issues hostage for a day is torture; to do it for eight years is unimaginable.

The stories of Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed are so important right now because they illustrate how dangerous it is to leave hostages in the hands of Hamas. Whether in an exchange deal or by military forces, all Israeli hostages in Gaza must be brought home as soon as possible. Hamas is willing to hold on to hostages for many years to try to get what they want. Both Mengistu and Al-Sayed have been held by Hamas longer than Gilad Shalit was, and while Shalit was a soldier in relatively good physical and mental health when he was taken captive, the same cannot be said for Mengistu and Al-Sayed. Now, Hamas has more than 120 Israeli hostages, in addition to Avera and Hisham — more sick, injured, and infirm Israelis held by Hamas in terrible conditions, without care.

As the names and faces of the other Israeli hostages start to fade from the news, the world should remember the names of Mengistu and Al-Sayed. Hamas has shown that it will hold on to hostages for as long as it takes to get as much from Israel as possible. These October 7th Hamas hostages cannot be allowed to join Mengistu and Al-Sayed as captives in Gaza for years. As discussions for an exchange advance once again, the names of Mengistu and Al-Sayed should not be overlooked; they deserve to be released on humanitarian grounds, as do all the hostages, and it cannot wait. One way or another, all the hostages must be brought home from Gaza, now.

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.
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