Pidyon Shvuyim (the redemption of captives) is a sacred commandment in Judaism. Ahead of the Jewish New Year 5779, US envoy Jason Greenblatt urged Jews around the world to pray with him for the release of the two Israeli captives, Avera Mengistu, 31, and Hisham al-Sayed, 30, and the return of the remains of the two IDF soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, being held by Hamas.
“This Rosh Hashanah I will pray for the Goldin and Shaul families that Hamas will return Hadar and Oron to them,” Greenblatt tweeted on Friday. “I will pray for the Mengistu and al-Sayed families that Hamas will return Avera and Hisham to them.” Goldin and Shaul were killed at the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, after a humanitarian ceasefire was declared, but Hamas has refused to return their remains to Israel so that their families can bury them.
Hamas has also declined to free Mengistu – an immigrant from Ethiopia whom it captured on September 7, 2014, after he inadvertently crossed the Israeli border into Gaza – and al-Sayed, a Bedouin Israeli who accidentally entered Gaza in April 2015.
On Thursday, their families held a news conference at the Jerusalem Press Club stressing that both men had mental illnesses, and issued an emotional plea for their release under a new campaign, titled #SpecialNeedsCaptives. The campaign was launched by public relations specialists Yossi Klar and Asaf Finkelstein.
“Holding a special needs captive is very cruel,” said Mengistu’s brother, Ilan, who called directly on Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar to “act as a human being, take into account his mental wellbeing and release him today.”
“Avera crossed the border as an innocent man, who is suffering from a mental disability,” Ilan Mengistu said. “His tragedy remains a humanitarian tragedy that crosses all borders.”
Hisham’s father Sha’aban al-Sayed said: “Avera and Hisham have no connection to the military or security conflict. To hold them as a political card is not logical.” He noted that he had decided to go public for the first time after Hamas’s confirmation a week before that it was holding “four prisoners,” and that Israel would have to pay a price for any information about them.
Both families appealed to the international community and human rights organization to put pressure on Hamas to free their sons immediately, and urged the Israeli government not to accept any comprehensive ceasefire agreement with Hamas that does not include the release of their sons.
Ran Goldstein, executive-director of the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, said that according to the World Health Organization, every person coping with mental problems has the right to be protected. “What we understand is that to gain real evidence from the Gaza side they would like to get something for it. That is unacceptable,” said Goldstein, calling for their unconditional release.
At the end of their press conference in Jerusalem on Thursday, the Mengistu and al-Sayed families held a brief interfaith prayer session, led by a Kes (Ethiopian Jewish leader) and a Muslim sheikh, who prayed in Amharic and Arabic for the release of the two young men.
The whole affair is another example of Hamas’s cynicism. As a terrorist organization, it has no problem cynically using the bodies of dead soldiers or two mentally ill Israelis as bargaining chips. We join the plea of all the families – Mengistu, al-Sayed, Goldin and Oron – in praying for their release. The Israeli government will need to tread carefully as it pursues a deal – not to pay too high a price but at the same time not to miss an opportunity to secure the release of the captives.