Israel and Syria Complete a Prisoner Swap, Mediated by Russia
JERUSALEM – Israel and Syria have fought many wars, never had diplomatic relations, and still combat the sovereignty of a tract of land, the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.
But on Thursday the two countries shared a rare moment of indirect cooperation, taking part in the interchange of a Russian intermediary prisoner who saw an Israeli woman held captive by Syria, who had been held by Syria by two Syrian shepherds Israel was announced on Friday morning, having been captured by Israel.
“Israel has always done everything to bring back its citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
The woman’s name has not been mentioned. An Israeli official said he is in his 20s, comes from near Jerusalem and has a history of trying to illegally enter Israeli neighbors. The officer said he entered the land in early February before being detained by Syrian authorities, who quickly discovered he was a civilian rather than a spy.
The exact circumstances of his accession are unclear and will be the subject of investigation by Israeli authorities after his return.
After mediation by Russia, which is a Syrian ally with a large military presence in the country, the woman was flown to Moscow, the official said. There, he met an Israeli team on Thursday night, including Yaron Blum, a former intelligence officer who has a history of involvement in prisoner exchanges.
His handovers were preceded by the release of two Syrian shepherds who were captured by Israel after crossing the land into the Golan Heights controlled by Israel.
Golan Heights Israel was annexed by Israel during the 1967 war between Syria, Jordan and Egypt and was home to around 20,000 Druze Arabs. Most of the area is divided by a border fence, but it is possible to cross the border into the more mountainous parts of the region, where it is difficult to construct a well-fortified barrier.
Israeli officials have been communicating with Russian counterparts about the case since at least 8 February. To facilitate the exchange, Mr. Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir V. Talked with Putin twice.
But the possibility of swapping Kept secret till tuesday, For fear of jeopardizing the deal.
The Israeli first lady was to be swapped for two Arab residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, who were being held by Israeli officials.
But one of them, Diab Qahum, refused to be sent to Syria, according to Israeli media, in Israel for smuggling explosives from Lebanon in Israel. The official said, the second, Nihal al-Makt, is still under questioning by Israel’s domestic intelligence agency.
The Syrian shepherds were again drafted as replacements, leading to their release on Thursday afternoon to cross the Syrian border, and the woman was transported to Moscow. It was not clear at the beginning of Friday whether she had yet left the Russian capital to return to Israel.
“The State of Israel wants to express appreciation for the actions of Russia’s president,” the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Russia has mediated similar episodes in the past. In 2016, Mr. Putin helped facilitate the return of an Israeli tank captured by Syrian troops in 1982 in southern Lebanon. Three years later, the Kremlin mediated the return of the remains of Zachari Dumel, a tank driver killed in a single battle.
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.