Two Israelis are being held captive in the Gaza Strip, including one detained by Hamas after crossing into the territory last year, Israeli officials said Thursday, raising fears of another hostage crisis.
The defense ministry said that "according to credible intelligence" Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, "is being held against his will by Hamas in Gaza."
It said in a statement that he had "independently crossed the security fence" into Gaza, the Palestinian territory ruled by Islamist movement Hamas, while media reports said the 28-year-old had climbed over the barrier for unclear reasons.
"Furthermore, the defense establishment is currently dealing with an additional case of an Israeli Arab also being held in Gaza," it said, without providing further details on the second person.
Hamas had not yet commented on the case.
The statement said that Mengistu entered the Palestinian territory on September 7, 2014, shortly after the end of a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas.
Israel maintains a strict blockade against Gaza and does not allow its citizens to enter the territory, partly out of fears that they may be used as bargaining chips to demand concessions, including the release of prisoners.
"Israel has appealed to international and regional interlocutors to demand his immediate release and verify his well-being," the ministry statement added.
The case had previously been kept quiet due to an Israeli gag order, which was lifted on Thursday by a judge in the southern city of Ashkelon, where Mengistu lived, local media reported.
The reports said that information on the unidentified Israeli Arab was still under a gag order.
Family demands return
Israeli media said that authorities had decided to go public with the story in the hope it might spur negotiations for their release.
"This is a humanitarian issue, and we expect those holding him to behave accordingly and return him in good health," President Reuven Rivlin told reporters on Thursday during a tour of southern Israel.
Local media also reported that the family of Mengistu was angered by the Israeli military's reaction, alleging that more effort would have been put into finding him if he were white.
Members of Israel's 135,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community say they suffer racism and discrimination. They have staged several rallies against alleged police brutality and racism in recent weeks.
The family briefly addressed journalists outside their home on Thursday, calling on Hamas to release him and the Israeli government to work toward his safe return.
"The family chose until now to remain discrete," said brother Asho Mengistu, surrounded by other family members, including his mother, who had tears in her eyes.
Asho Mengistu said his brother was not in good health but did not provide details.
A friend of the family wearing a shirt with Mengistu's name on it told reporters outside the family's home that many questions remained unanswered. The family was told earlier on that they should keep the situation quiet, he said.
"We know that he has been in Gaza for several months," said Avi Yaalo. "We don't have any more information. The family is demanding the return of their son in good health."
'Nothing is free'
Lawmaker and former head of the Shin Bet security service Avi Dichter told army radio that it could be possible to combine indirect talks on their cases with ongoing efforts to secure the return of body parts of two Israel soldiers killed during the 2014 Gaza war.
"If within the parameters of negotiations to get back the bodies of our soldiers... we can manage to get these two Israelis who are in Gaza it would be a great achievement," said Dichter, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.
The Israeli army has identified the dead soldiers as Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul and Lieutenant Hadar Goldin.
In 2006, Gaza militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and held him for five years before freeing him in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Many have since been rearrested and Israeli media reported that Hamas has demanded their release in exchange for any other deals.
"Nothing is for free," a Hamas official in Gaza told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. "In advance of any discussion Hamas demands the release of all the prisoners freed in the swap for Gilad Shalit and subsequently re-arrested."