(Jerusalem) – Two Israeli men with serious mental health conditions who crossed separately from Israel into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2015 have apparently been held by the Hamas military wing, Human Rights Watch said today. Avera Mangistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who both have histories of wandering far on foot, including in the case of al-Sayed across borders without authorization, have not been heard from since they entered Gaza.
Hamas authorities have indirectly acknowledged in media statements holding the two men, but say they will divulge nothing about them – not even to confirm their detention – until Israel frees a group of detained Hamas members. Hamas authorities refer to the men as soldiers, but a Human Rights Watch investigation indicates that the Israeli men were not combatants or affiliated with the Israeli government when they entered Gaza.
“Hamas’s refusal to confirm its apparent prolonged detention of men with mental health conditions and no connection to the hostilities is cruel and indefensible,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “No grievance or objective can justify holding people incommunicado and bartering over their fates.”
Human Rights Watch conducted numerous interviews with the families and friends of the men and with Israeli and Palestinian officials, visited the men’s homes and neighborhoods, and reviewed official medical and military documents.
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.
If, as seems the case, Mangistu and al-Sayed entered Gaza in conditions unrelated to the international armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, international human rights law would require authorities to detain them solely according to clear domestic law, which would mean either to charge them with a recognizable crime or release them. The same principles would apply to Abu Ghanima if he is in custody.
Whatever the legal basis for detention, the men have the right to humane treatment that takes into consideration their mental health conditions and any reasonable accommodation required while in detention, as well as access to healthcare services including mental health care on the basis of free and informed consent. Detainees also have the right to contact with their families and visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In case of criminal prosecution, information regarding any accusation should be provided in language they can understand, and the procedural accommodations, such as support persons to facilitate communication, should be available based on their needs and preferences.
Human Rights Watch has conducted several interviews with members of the Mangistu, al-Sayed and Abu Ghanima families since 2016, visiting each in their homes. Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva facilitated the initial meeting with the Mangistu family, in March 2016. Human Rights Watch reviewed extensive documentary evidence on Mangistu and al-Sayed, including medical records and military service paperwork, which the Mangistu and al-Sayed families gave Human Rights Watch permission to share, and spoke to people who knew the men from their communities.
After obtaining permission from Israeli authorities to enter Gaza in September 2016, for the first time since 2008, Human Rights Watch raised the cases with senior Hamas political official Mahmoud al-Zahar, and with officials of the Gaza authority, then-Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, then-Deputy Justice Minister Omar al-Borsh, then-General Inspector of the Interior Ministry Mohammad Lafi, and then-Deputy Interior Minister Kamal Ahmed Abu Mady. It also interviewed a representative of the Israeli government with knowledge of the Mangistu and al-Sayed cases and viewed technical documentation which Israeli authorities say shows Mangistu’s crossing.
Human Rights Watch sought, but was unable to obtain, information about Abu Ghanima beyond what his family and a former high school teacher told us. His family had no documentation on his health condition and, when asked for contacts of other people, said no one else in the community knew him. Human Rights Watch sought official comment from the Israel Defense Forces on Abu Ghanima’s status and date of entry into Gaza, but has received no response.