PM to woman's mother: We'll always act to free citizens

Israel agreed to more than just a prisoner exchange to get woman back from Syria

Full details of arrangement barred from publication by military censor; MK Tibi responds to deal: Does a Jewish person need to cross into Gaza so Palestinians can get a vaccine?

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

File: Russian President Vladimir Putin  (right) meets with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)
File: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)

A central aspect of the agreement to secure the release of an Israeli woman who crossed into Syria that was brokered by Russia this week has been barred from publication by the military censor, despite the fact that the matter would be seen as deeply controversial to the Israeli public. (The woman, whose name has not been released for publication, was flown back to Israel, via Moscow, overnight Thursday-Friday.)

Knesset member Ahmad Tibi responded to the controversy from his Twitter account. Politicians are not bound by the military censor.

“Last week, I raised in the Knesset a demand to allow the entrance of thousands of vaccines to Gaza and to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank from the large inventory that Israel has (which is the responsibility of an occupying force). Did I need to wait for a Jewish wo/man to cross into Gaza so that [Palestinians] could get a vaccine?” Tibi wrote.

On Friday afternoon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with the young woman’s mother, who thanked him for the efforts to free her from captivity, according to a statement from the premier’s office.

Netanyahu gave her his well-wishes and said Israel would always act to return captive citizens.

On February 2, the Israeli woman crossed the border into Syria in the foothills of Mount Hermon, an area where there is minimal fencing and spotty surveillance camera coverage. It was not immediately clear how the 25-year-old woman, who reportedly speaks fluent Arabic, knew that this location was a good spot to cross. The military said it was investigating the incident.

This was not the woman’s first time attempting to cross Israel’s borders. According to Israeli authorities, she had twice tried to enter the Gaza Strip — once by land and once on a makeshift raft — and once attempted to cross into Jordan. All three times she was captured by either the military or the police.

After successfully crossing into Syria this month, she entered the Druze village of Khader, where she was captured on suspicion of being a spy and handed over to Syrian intelligence. Damascus told Russia of the matter, and Moscow passed along the information to Israel, prompting negotiations to get her back.

“Roughly two weeks ago, we received information about an Israeli civilian woman being held by Syrian security forces. She crossed to the Syrian side of her own volition and by herself — an incident that we will be investigating,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a video statement on Friday, after her return.

“We immediately began working to bring her back. We clarified to the other side that she was a civilian and that this was a humanitarian issue and not a security one. We held conversations with the senior-most Russian officials, our counterparts. I spoke personally with the Russian defense minister, whom I’d like to thank for his involvement and for the assistance from the Russian government in the effort to return her home,” Gantz said.

In addition to the classified aspect of the agreement, Israel initially agreed to concessions regarding two prisoners — Nihal al-Maqt and Dhiyab Qahmuz — both from the Druze community of the Golan Heights, who largely remained loyal to Damascus after the area was captured by Israel in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981.

As the incident unfolded, Russia had pushed for Israel to scale back its airstrikes on Iran-linked sites in Syria — ongoing attacks that both Damascus and Moscow oppose, the former because its air defenses are regularly targeted during these operations as they fire on Israeli jets and the latter because it interferes with Russian efforts to stabilize and rebuild the war-torn country. But this request appears to have been rejected, as evident by the Syrian reports of Israeli strikes in the country over the past two weeks.

Al-Maqt had been imprisoned for incitement since 2017, and Qahmuz was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2018 for plotting a terror bombing in coordination with the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group.

Nihal Al-Maqt, a Syrian woman held by Israel, as shown in Syrian media on February 17, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

Al-Maqt told Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV on Wednesday afternoon that she had been released from house arrest.

However, Qahmuz, who was due to have his sentence reduced and then be sent to Syria as part of the exchange, refused to be deported.

As a result, his case was removed from the agreement and instead Israel agreed to release two Syrians who crossed the border into Israel this month, ostensibly as they were herding their flocks. The Israel Defense Forces believes that Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups use local shepherds as scouts to conduct reconnaissance missions along the border with plausible deniability.

The Syrian shepherds were handed over to the Red Cross at the Quneitra crossing into Syria on Thursday, the IDF said, in a move that was ordered by the government. Syria’s SANA news agency confirmed the swap, identifying the “Syrian prisoners” as Mohamed Hussein and Tarek al-Obeidan.

Yaron Blum, coordinator for negotiating the return of POWs and MIAs, on April 3, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli woman, who had been transferred from Syria to Russia on Wednesday, was flown back to Israel from Moscow late Thursday night, landing at Ben Gurion International Airport early Friday.

She was expected to be questioned by the Shin Bet internal security service upon arrival.

Accompanying the woman on the flight were Asher Hayun, a staffer for Netanyahu, Yaron Blum, government coordinator for negotiating the return of POWs and MIAs, representatives of the National Security Council and a doctor who checked the woman’s health.

“A few days ago a young Israeli woman crossed the border into Syria. I spoke twice with my friend President Vladimir Putin of Russia. I asked that he help to return her, and he took action,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement as the woman’s return to Israel was under way.

“Israel has always done and will always do everything in its power to bring its citizens home,” he said.

Netanyahu spoke with Putin on February 8 and February 13 to ask for assistance in bringing the woman home, and following those talks National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Putin’s political adviser held a series of discussions to complete the deal, the statement said.

The Prime Minister’s Office thanked Putin for his assistance.

Russia, which is closely allied with the Syrian regime, has regularly served as an intermediary between Jerusalem and Damascus, which do not maintain formal ties and remain in a state of war.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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