Russia mediates prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria

The young Israeli woman is already on her way to Tel Aviv
Atalayar_FNUOS Siria

AFP/ JALAA MAREY   -   United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) Members

A Russian-mediated prisoner exchange between Syria and Israel, which have technically been at war since Israel's founding in 1948, took place on Thursday between two Syrian shepherds and a young Israeli man. The Israeli authorities suspected that the two shepherds might have links to Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite militia-party. 

The Israeli army had handed over to Syria the shepherds who were arrested a few weeks ago after crossing the border into the disputed Syrian Golan Heights area, occupied by Tel Aviv since the Six-Day War. The shepherds were handed over to the International Red Cross after crossing Line Alpha, the de facto border between the two countries. Syria after confirming the release of the two prisoners identified them as Mohammad Hussein and Tarek al-Obeidan.

Atalayar_Vehículos militares Siria
AP/ARIEL SHALIT - Military vehicles in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the Syrian border

On the other hand, a young Israeli woman had crossed the border, according to Hebrew media, because she was in love with a Syrian citizen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reported that "she is currently on her way to Israel", and indicated that the release of the two shepherds was a "gesture of goodwill". 

"A few days ago, a young Israeli woman crossed the border into Syria. I spoke twice with my friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin. I asked for his help in promoting the girl's return and he acted," Netanyahu said on Thursday night, expressing gratitude to the Russian leader, who mediated between the Syrian and Israeli authorities. 

Atalayar_Putin y Netanyahu
PHOTO/REUTERS - Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

All this came with Netanyahu in the midst of campaigning for the 23 March legislative elections. The decision to release the prisoners and do everything possible to bring back the Israeli citizen was taken on Tuesday when the prime minister convened an emergency meeting of the security cabinet. On Wednesday the national security adviser, Meir Ben Shabbat, rushed to Moscow to negotiate the girl's release. 

The girl was arrested by a Syrian patrol in the vicinity of Quneitra, and was from the West Bank settlement of Modiin Illit. The secret affair between the young woman and a Syrian national has caused a stir in Israeli society. 

Hebrew media reports indicate that the young woman appears to have travelled from the Syrian capital Damascus to Moscow and will then take a flight to Tel Aviv. Internal security agents will be waiting for her at the capital's airport to interrogate her, as it is a mystery how she managed to cross the border, which has a large military deployment, advanced surveillance systems, as well as fences, barbed wire and minefields. 

Atalayar_Sidqi al-Maqt
AFP/HO / SANA - Sidqi al-Maqt (left) after his release from prison in Israel, in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights

According to the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the prisoner is a peace activist who tried years ago to enter the Gaza Strip, a territory blockaded by the Israeli army. 

This is not the first time a prisoner exchange has taken place. In January 2020, the Israeli authorities released two Druze prisoners from the Golan Heights, one of whom had been convicted of spying for Syria. Also on that occasion, Russia facilitated mediation between the two countries as it has relations with both Syria and Israel.

In recent years Israel has repeatedly attacked Syrian targets and those of its allies, Hezbollah and Iran. The latest missile attack occurred in early February when Syrian anti-aircraft forces had to be activated to avoid missile strikes in the vicinity of Damascus. In mid-January, 57 Syrian soldiers were killed in an Israeli attack on the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.