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Israel and Syria negotiating prisoner swap through Russian mediation 

Young woman apparently crossed into Syria though details of when and how are unknown

UN peacekeepers transfer two Syrian prisoners held in Israeli prisons and released back to Syria following the return of the body of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, at the Quneitra Border crossing, in the Golan Heights, on April 28, 2019. (Photo: Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The Israeli government is seeking the release of a 25-year old Israeli woman from the ultra-Orthodox town of Modiin Illit. The young, formerly Haredi, woman’s identity has not been published. 

The drama began on Tuesday when the Israeli security cabinet urgently voted on a classified humanitarian issue relating to Syria, reportedly about a prison swap exchange that Israel and Syria are currently negotiating with Russia as a mediator.

It is still unknown why and how the Israeli woman entered Syrian territory from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, where Syrian authorities subsequently arrested her. In return for releasing the Israeli woman, the Syrian regime is demanding the release of the imprisoned Golan Heights residents Nihal Al-Maqt and Dhiyab Qahmuz. 

On Wednesday, Syrian state media SANA confirmed that prison swap negotiations are under way. 

“The exchange is taking place through Russian mediation to liberate the Syrians Nihal Al-Maqt and Dhiyab Qahmuz, the Syrian prisoner from the occupied Syrian Golan, in an exchange during which a young Israeli woman who entered the Syrian territories by mistake will be released. She entered the Quneitra region by mistake and was arrested by the Syrian authorities.”

Qahmuz, who is an Israeli citizen, was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2018. He had plotted terrorist attacks on shopping centers in northern Israel on behalf of the Iranian proxy terrorist organization, Hezbollah, an ally of Syria. 

Al-Maqt, who is a resident of the Druze town Majdal Shams in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, was sentenced in 2020 to three years in prison, reportedly for anti-Israel incitement. She opposes Israeli control of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967 after being attacked by Syria. Al-Maqt reportedly refused an Israeli offer to relocate to Damascus and was allowed to stay in the Golan Heights. 

Al-Maqt’s brother, Sidqi, was released in 2020 in another Russian-mediated prisoner exchange, in which Syria returned the remains of Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier killed in 1982. Sidqi was serving a lengthy prison sentence, convicted of espionage and supporting terrorism. 

Moscow has close ties with the Syrian Assad regime and good diplomatic relations with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly using his strong personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure the release of the Israeli woman. 

“We are working to save lives. I can just say I’m using my personal connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure her release,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Israeli Army Radio. 

Last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi reportedly spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. There was also communication between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shigu. 

While not elaborating on the content of the conversation, Gantz’s office released a vague statement that Russian and Israeli top defense officials discussed “security challenges in the Middle East generally, and Syria in particular.”

On Wednesday, Israel’s National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Yaron Blum, an official from the prime minister’s office responsible for Israeli captives, flew to Moscow to negotiate the terms of the release of the Israeli woman. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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