TEL AVIV – Israel has agreed to release more Syrian prisoners in return for the remains of fallen Israeli soldiers in Syria, the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported Tuesday.
The report comes days after Israel released two Syrian prisoners — a Fatah terrorist and a drug smuggler — to Damascus in a Russian-mediated “goodwill gesture” following the return of fallen IDF soldier Sgt. Zachary Baumel earlier this month.
There are several Syrian nationals serving time in Israeli prisons. According to the report, the release of the Syrians on Sunday was just the first stage in wider prisoner exchange program. Sidqi al-Maqt and Amal Abu Salah, two Syrian prisoners in Israel, were told by Syrian officials that they will be released in the next round, the report said.
Al-Maqt became the longest-serving Syrian in an Israeli prison with a 27-year sentence for a range of convictions, including spying for Syria.
Abu Saleh was convicted of manslaughter after a wounded Syrian in an Israeli ambulance was killed when Abu Saleh and a group of others blocked the ambulance from transporting the patient to a hospital.
The report quoted sources in their hometown of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights as saying that their families expressed their anger to the Syrian and Russian authorities.
“The officials from Damascus told them from that the deal was not yet complete,” the Arabic-language report said according to a translation by The Jerusalem Post. “The remains of other Israeli soldiers were in Syria and that efforts were under way to return them, so that no Syrian prisoner would remain in Israeli jails.”
Israel has maintained that Sunday’s prisoner release had no connection with the repatriation of Baumel’s remains. IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis said it was part of an operational mission carried out by military intelligence.
According to reports, both prisoners asked not to be returned to Syria.
Hamis Ahmad, a Fatah activist from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for attempting to infiltrate Israel armed with a hunting rifle and ammunition in an operation to abduct IDF soldiers.
Zidan Tweil, of the Syrian village of Khader, has been jailed since 2008 for smuggling 13.5 kilograms of heroin and one kilogram of cocaine into Israel. He was set to be freed in July. According to the Haaretz newspaper, Tweil claimed during his trial that he was wanted by the Assad regime because of a false belief that he had collaborated with Israel.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that the Russian army, aided by Syria, had recovered the body of Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier who went missing in action along with five other Israeli soldiers during the First Lebanon War’s bloody Sultan Yacoub battle against the Syrian army in 1982.
Syria has denied claims that it helped Russia.
On Friday, Russia’s Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev said that Israel had agreed to release Syrian nationals serving time in Israeli jails as a goodwill gesture.
“In Russia, we are very sensitive to the search for missing and dead people, even from World War II,” Alexander Lavrentiev said in an interview with Russia’s RT broadcaster in Arabic.
“For this reason, when the decision to transfer the body was made, we thanked the Syrian side for their understanding,” he said. “But this action was not unilateral — Israel made a decision, which it will have to carry out later, to release some of the Syrian citizens who are in Israeli jails.”
The retrieval of Baumel’s body “paid off for Syria in the end,” Lavrentyev said, adding that Russia “would never act in way that contradicts Syria’s interests.”
Israel confirmed the release on Saturday.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to release the two Syrian prisoners, Hebrew media reported, paving the way for President Reuven Rivlin to sign a presidential pardon necessary for their release.
“When the matter reached the President’s desk and due to the circumstances, the Presidential Appeals Department appealed to the Attorney-General’s opinion to approve the move. After the approval of the Attorney-General, the President exercised his authority to pardon under the Basic Law: the President of the State,” Rivlin’s office said in a statement on Saturday night.