Israel announces Russian-brokered prisoner swap with Syria
Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu’s office announced early Friday that it had completed a Russian-mediated prisoner swap to bring home a young Israeli woman who crossed the border into Syria.
In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said the woman was on her way home, hours after Israel announced it had returned to Syria two shepherds who crossed into Israeli territory in recent weeks. According to Israeli media reports, the 25-year-old woman was sent by Syria to Russia, where an Israeli plane was dispatched to retrieve her.
Netanyahu thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for helping engineer the deal, saying he had reached out to the leader for help. “I asked for his help, and he indeed acted,” Netanyahu said, calling the Russian leader “my friend.”
Little is known about why the woman entered Syria. Israeli media have said she is a former resident of an ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement, but she has not been publicly identified. Syrian media said she accidentally entered Syrian territory after crossing from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.
Official Syrian media first reported the emerging deal on Wednesday, saying that two Syrians were to be exchanged for the Israeli woman.
The two Syrians were identified as Nihal al-Makt, who had been under house arrest in her village in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, and Ziyab Qahmouz, detained in 2016 and serving 14 years in Israeli jails.
But the deal ran into complications after al-Makt and Qahmouz, who are both from the Golan, refused to be transferred to Syria.
Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the territory in 1981, a move that is not widely recognized internationally.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said al-Makt was serving a three-year suspended sentence, along with a year of community service. She said those restrictions were lifted on Wednesday and speaking to Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV through Skype, she said she was now free. Netanyahu’s office confirmed Thursday her sentence had been shortened by three months.
Al-Ikhbariya said Qahmouz remained in Israeli custody.
Syria’s SANA said late Thursday that two more Syrians — apparently the two shepherds — returned home to their villages in Quneitra province.