Let’s remember Hamas' first hostages

Benji Shulman on the cases of Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al- Sayed

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With Disability Rights Awareness Month let us remember the first hostages

6 December 2023

South Africa has just ended the celebration and acknowledgement of National Disability Rights Awareness Month which takes place annually between 3 November and 3 December. The aim of these days is to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.

According to Nomonde Mnukwathe of the SA Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) this month is “a time for introspection on how we can advance the rights of persons with disabilities and ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated in every area of our society.”

One of the places we should consider this - is in our foreign policy.

Most people assume that the first hostages that were taken by Hamas, were the 240 elderly, women and children that were kidnapped during the unprecedented atrocity of October 7th, where 1200 Israeli civilians were also murdered. However this is actually not the first set of hostages that Hamas has taken. In fact Hamas has been holding two Israeli civilians hostage for nearly a decade and both of whom have mental illness challenges.

Their names are Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al- Sayed. Mengistu is an Ethiopian Jew, who has been captive in Gaza since September 2014 and Sayed, an Arab Bedouin Israeli, who has been held since April 20, 2015. Both of the men have severe mental health illnesses that caused them to wander unaccompanied from their homes -leaving for days at a time, without their families' knowledge. Both men on separate occasions jumped over the fence that separates Israel from Gaza and have not been seen in person since.

Hamas has continued to deny that they are holding the two men hostage and have claimed that they are members of the Israeli Defense Forces However, an Amnesty International report says that these men suffer from “serious mental health disorders” and that they fear “that the two men are being held as hostages by Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades for a potential prisoner exchange.” Official Israeli documents seen by Human Rights Watch show that both men are civilians, who were exempted from military service as a result of their disabilities.

The families of these men, who both come from the lower socio-economic levels of Israeli society, have been campaigning and urging for the release of these men for nearly a decade with very few signs that Hamas is willing to release them, or even acknowledge their captivity appropriately. The Red Cross has had no access to them and it is not clear if they are getting the medicine that they require for their conditions. Even the Pope has unsuccessfully tried to help to get them released.

Unfortunately their families are no longer alone; they are sharing the pain of the many new members to a group that no one ever wishes to join- those of families waiting desperately to hear any news about their missing loved ones in Gaza. The extremist organisation, Hamas is holding not only them but all the people of Gaza hostage during the violence that has ensued as Israel has defended itself against the massacre of October 7th.

It is not in doubt that Hamas has been committing a war crime for nearly a decade. Under international law, countries must investigate enforced disappearances, hold anyone responsible to account, and properly compensate victims. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the state of Palestine ratified in April 2014, also provides protections for people with psychosocial, or mental health, disabilities, including freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment and equal access to justice, which may include reasonable accommodations that take into account their disability.

Much like the 240 hostages stolen on October 7th, the world should raise its voice in outcry at these brutal acts against these hostages with mental illness. But with the month of National Disability Rights Awareness,the South African government, as key international supporters of Hamas, who just met with a delegation of the organisation, have shown no signs of being interested in ending their detention. We must continue to remember Mengistu and Al Sayed, a Jewish son of Africa and Arab son of Israel, Hamas’s first hostages and ensure that their rights to freedom and safety and mental health are safeguarded.

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