A Druze man convicted of spying for Syria hailed his release from an Israeli prison on Friday as a “day of victory” over Israel, as he and another freed prisoner were feted upon their return to the Golan Heights.
Sidqi al-Maqt and Amal Abu Salah, whose release Israel announced Thursday in a Russian-brokered swap, waved Syrian flags and were carried upon the shoulders of supporters during celebrations in their hometown of Majdal Shams.
“This is a day of victory for me and the Syrian people, a victory over Israeli capriciousness and occupation,” al-Maqt said earlier at a lookout point on the Syrian border, according to the Haaretz daily.
Al-Maqt thanked the leaders of Russia and Syria and said he did not know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Damascus this week was connected to his release.
“I was released only according to the Syrian terms and I didn’t agree to surrender to the dictates of Israel, which about a month ago offered me to go to Damascus,” he said.
Asked whether his release was part of a larger agreement, al-Maqt said, “I don’t know and it doesn’t really interest me.”
According to Channel 13, al-Maqt and Amal Abu Salah said they would rather remain in prison when Israel sought to deport them to Syria and were ultimately allowed to stay in the Golan Heights.
Al-Maqt was sentenced to 14 years behind bars in 2017 for spying on IDF positions on behalf of Syrian intelligence. He was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of passing photographs and written reports of IDF positions to Syrian intelligence officials.
He had already spent 27 years behind bars in Israel for spying and had been released in 2012.
Abu Salah, who was released Thursday, was jailed in 2015 for taking part in a deadly mob attack on an ambulance carrying a wounded Syrian rebel into the country for treatment.
He had been due to remain behind bars until 2023 for his role in the violence, which left the wounded Syrian dead and two soldiers transporting him lightly injured.
News of the release raised speculation in Israel that it could be tied to an upcoming visit by Putin later this month and efforts to secure the release of Israeli traveler Naama Issachar, who is serving a 7.5 year sentence in Moscow after marijuana was found in her bag during a layover there.
However, authorities maintained that the early releases are a “gesture of goodwill” after the repatriation to Israel last year of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier missing since the 1982 Battle of Sultan Yacoub in the Lebanon War.
Baumel’s remains were returned to Israel via Russia last year.
In April, Israel released two other Syrian prisoners back to Syria as a “goodwill gesture” to Damascus following the return of Baumel’s remains.
The two men were identified by Israel as a drug smuggler and a Fatah operative jailed 14 years ago for an attempted attack on IDF soldiers.
According to Israeli media, the release of al-Maqt and Abu Salah was delayed because the two men wanted to return to Majdal Shams, rather than to Syria. Israel had demanded they cross the border and only be allowed to apply to return after five years.
Some 23,000 Druze live in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and later extended sovereignty over.
Part of the Druze population in the Golan still consider themselves Syrian and remained allied with the Assad regime throughout the civil war.
AFP contributed to this report.