Israel has announced the release of two prisoners — one of whom was convicted of spying for Syria — as part of a swap deal brokered by Russia.
Sidqi al-Maqt, from the Druze town of Majdal Shams, 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 prior to his latest arrest.
“Security prisoner Sidqi Al-Maqt will be released tomorrow, January 10, before the scheduled end of his imprisonment,” Israeli prison officials said in a statement late Thursday.
Upon his release al-Maqt thanked Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin for their work to secure his release.
“The Syrian resolve overcame the resolve of the occupation and the enemy,” he said. “My release was without conditions, to the chagrin of the occupation.”
Authorities also announced the early release of another Golan Heights resident, Amal Abu Salah, who 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.
Abu Salah was released at midnight, according to Hebrew reports.
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 the town of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, 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 still live on the part of the Golan Heights seized from Syria by Israel in 1967 and later annexed.
Part of the Druze population in the Golan still consider themselves Syrian and remained allied with the Assad regime throughout the civil war.