Anti-Israel human rights group opposes Hamas over Israelis held in Gaza

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest calling for the release of Avraham Mengistu at the Erez Crossing in southern Israel, near the Gaza Strip on September 3, 2015. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an uncharacteristic move, Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that usually displays bias against Israel, released a report saying that the detention of two Israelis who are mentally ill in the Gaza strip is illegal and that the men should be released.

In July 2015, Israel lifted a gag order after rumors started to surface about two missing men with mental health concerns being held captive in Gaza. Hamas had made mention of the possibility of using these two mentally handicapped men, along with the bodies of two murdered IDF soldiers, as bargaining chips to secure the release of Palestinian Authority prisoners in Israeli jails.

Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Avraham Mengistu have been missing since September 2014 and April 2015 after they respectively made their way on foot into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Hamas has never officially confirmed that Sayed and Mengistu are being held captive there, but videos published by the terrorist ruling party on social media have included images of these two men.

Al-Sayed and Mengistu are not prisoners of war as neither of them were soldiers at the time they entered Gaza, and according to international law should be released. Both are known to have mental health disabilities and challenges. Although various local and foreign media have reported on the situation of the two men, and Israel has appealed to various international organizations to intervene, there has been little to no progress in securing their safe return home.

HRW, which considers its work to include “accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy,” has many anti-Israel activists and BDS supporters on staff, including the new director, Omar Shakir. Initially, Israeli authorities refused to provide him a work visa, but last month, the Interior Ministry reversed its decision and granted a one-year work permit. Shakir is known for anti-Semitic activities and perpetuating a Palestinian narrative.

Shakir, in his role as HRW’s director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, said that Hamas refuses to give any information on the two Israelis until Israel releases some Hamas members from Israeli jails. On a video that included interviews with the hostages’ family members, Shakir said, “No demand can justify disappearing and bartering over the lives of men, particularly those with serious mental health conditions.”

“While they are being detained they must be treated humanely and have contact with their families,” he continued.

Hamas has other ideas.

In 2011, Israel set a precedent when it agreed to exchange over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the soldier Hamas had kidnapped and kept captive for five years. Last week, Hamas told Israel that it had 24 hours to meet their demands and release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, most with Israeli blood on their hands.

Israeli officials have stated that negotiation is not an option.

In the meantime, the families of al-Sayed, a Muslim Bedouin and Mengistu, a Jew of Ethiopian descent, anxiously wait.