Photo: Flash90

Russia reportedly brokers Israel-Syria prisoner swap

Russia is reportedly negotiating a deal for the release of a young Israeli woman who appears to have inadvertently entered neighboring Syria in exchange for two Syrian security prisoners held by Israel.

The Israeli Defense Ministry declined to comment in response to TV7’s request for information.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also declined to offer any details. He did, however, say that he was using his “personal connections with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin to solve the problem” during an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, adding, “We are in the middle of sensitive contacts…. acting discreetly and responsibly to handle the matter, and I believe we will solve it.”

The Syrian state SANA news agency is so far the only media outlet to report that the two Syrian prisoners held by Israel are from the Golan Heights, part of which was captured by the IDF during the 1967 Six Day War. Even though Israel annexed its part of the Golan in 1981, many of the Arab residents retain Syrian citizenships and identify as Syrian.

The young Israeli woman, who SANA identified as a “girl,” was said to have been arrested by Syrian authorities after crossing into the area of Quneitra in Syria, on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan.

The SANA report came a day after Israeli Cabinet ministers are believed to have been convened for an an urgent, unscheduled special session via video conference to discuss what officials said was a ‘humanitarian issue’ in which Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was helping to coordinate. Israel’s Military Censor has barred details of the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, from publication.

The Israel Prisons Service also declined to comment on the matter.

After SANA published its report, Israel’s Kan public radio said Russian mediation is still underway, and that a plane was transporting Israel’s National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and hostage coordinator Yaron Bloom back from talks in Moscow. Kan also said that the Israeli woman would ultimately be released via Russia rather than directly back to Israel, due to the Kremlin’s involvement in brokering the swap.

Moreover, Netanyahu, Alternate Premier and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are all reported to have been in contact with their Russian counterparts Putin, Sergey Shoygu and Sergey Lavrov, respectively, over the issue for the past several weeks.

Over the past two years, Russia has helped secure the release of 4 Syrians held by Israel in exchange for the return of the body of IDF  Sgt. First Class  Zachary Baumel, who was declared missing after a 1982 tank battle with Syrian forces in Lebanon. There were unverified reports just over a week ago that the Russian military was searching a cemetery near the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus, in attempts to locate remains of Israeli soldiers Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who went missing at the same time as Baumel during the Sultan Yacoub battle of the First Lebanon War. According to the Syrian Capital Voice site, the search includes DNA testing.

Local Israeli media identified the Israeli woman is said to be a 25-year-old from an ultra-Orthodox community in Modiin Illit. It is unknown how or for what purpose she entered Syria.

The 2 Golan residents are reportedly Nihal Al-Maqt and Dhiyab Qahmuz.

Qahmuz, a resident of the Ghajar village and member of a family that has a history of criminal activity, was sentenced to 16 years behind bars in 2018 after being convicted of conspiring to carry out a terror bombing in coordination with the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group based in Lebanon.

Al-Maqt was a resident of Majdal Shams, and also from a militant anti-Israeli family, who was incarcerated on charges of incitement in 2017. In an interview with Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV yesterday, she said she has already been released from prison to house arrest.

The exchange deal reportedly hit an impasse today, after both of the two Golan residents refused to be released to Syria.

Israeli officials speaking on condition of anonymity were cited as saying that despite the hitch, they expect the deal will go through in the coming days.