“For how long will I be in captivity? After so many years, where are the state and the people of Israel?” These were the words, uttered in Hebrew, of a person believed to be Avera Mengistu, an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian origin who was captured and held in Gaza in 2014.
Footage of Mengistu, looking nervous but also somewhat defiant, calling on his countrymen to end his 9-year incarceration, mostly ended speculation in Israel on whether the soldier was alive or dead.
The timing of the release of the footage by Hamas was obvious, and is directly linked to the Palestinian group’s efforts aimed at conducting a prisoner exchange similar to the one carried out in 2011, which saw the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, in exchange for the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The main target audience of Hamas’ message is the new government and, specifically, the new military leadership. Israel now has a new army chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, who has replaced the departing chief, Aviv Kochavi. The latter seemed disinterested in Mengistu’s cause, while the new chief arrives with lofty promises about uniting the country behind its military and opening a new page where the army is no longer involved in everyday politics.
It may appear that Hamas and other Gaza groups are in a stronger position than the one they enjoyed during Shalit’s captivity, between 2006 and 2011. Not only are they militarily stronger but, instead of capturing one Israeli, they have four: aside from Mengistu, they also have Hisham al-Sayed, and what is believed to be the remains of two other soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.
But this is when the story gets particularly complicated. Unlike Shalit, who is white and holds dual Israeli-French citizenship, Mengistu and al-Sayed are Ethiopian Jew and Bedouin, respectively.
Racism based on color and ethnicity is rife in Israel. Although no Israeli officials will admit to this openly, Israel is in no rush to rescue two men who are not members of the dominant Ashkenazi group, or even of the socially less privileged Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews.
Black Jews and Bedouins have always been placed at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic indicators. In 2011, the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post shared numbers from a disturbing report, which placed poverty among children of Ethiopian immigrants at a whopping 65 percent. The number is particularly staggering when compared to the average poverty rate in Israel, of 21 percent.
Things have not improved much since then. The Israeli Justice Ministry’s annual report on racism complaints shows that 24 percent of all complaints are filed by Ethiopians. This racism covers most aspects of public life, from education to services to police mistreatment.
Not even enlisting in the military – Israel’s most revered institution – is enough to change Ethiopians’ position in Israeli society.
The famous story of Demas Fikadey in 2015 is a case in point. Then only 21, the Ethiopian soldier was beaten up severely by two Israeli police officers in a Tel Aviv suburb for no reason at all. The whole episode was caught on camera, leading to mass protests and even violent clashes. For Ethiopian Jews, the humiliation and violence carried out against Fikadey was a representation of years of suffering, racism and discrimination.
Many believe that the government’s lackluster response to Mengistu’s prolonged capture is directly linked to the fact that he is black.
Israel’s discriminatory behavior against African asylum seekers, which often leads to forceful deportation following humiliating treatment, is well known. Amnesty International described this in a report in 2018 as “a cruel and misguided abandonment of responsibility”.
But discriminating against a black soldier, who, by Israel’s own estimation, is believed to suffer from mental illness, is a whole different kind of ‘abandonment’.
A former Israeli army official, Col. Moshe Tal did not mince words in a recent national radio interview when he said that Mengistu and al-Sayed are a low priority for the public “on the account of their race”, Haaretz reported.
“If we were speaking about two other citizens from other backgrounds and socio-economic statuses … the amount of interest would be different,” Tal said. In contrast to Shalit’s story, the government’s “attention to the affair (and) the media pulse, is close to zero.”
Israel’s Ethiopian Jews number around 170,000, hardly an important political constituency in a remarkably divided and polarized society. Most of them are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in Israel between 1980 and 1992. Though they are still known as the Falasha, they are sometimes referred to by the more dignified name of ‘Beta Israel’, or ‘House of Israel’.
Superficial language alterations aside, their struggle is evident in everyday Israel. The plight of Mengistu, as expressed in his own question, “where are the state and the people of Israel?” sums up the sense of collective loss and alienation this community has felt for nearly two generations.
When Mengistu arrived with his family at the age of 5 in Israel, escaping a bloody civil war in Ethiopia and historic discrimination there, the family, like most Ethiopians, hardly knew that discrimination would follow them, even in the supposed land of ‘milk and honey’.
And, most likely, they also knew little about the plight of Palestinians, the native inhabitants of that historic land, who are victims of terrible violence, racism and much more.
Palestinians know well why Israel has done little to free the black soldier; Mengistu and his Ethiopian community also understand how race is an important factor in Israeli politics. Although a prisoner exchange could potentially free Mengistu and an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel and discrimination against Ethiopian Jews will carry on for much longer.
While Palestinians are resisting Israel’s military occupation and apartheid, Ethiopian Jews should mount their own resistance for greater rights. Their resistance must be predicated on the understanding that Palestinians and Arabs are not the enemy but potential allies in a joint fight against racism, apartheid and socio-economic marginalization.