Israel released two Syrian prisoners back to Syria on Sunday afternoon as a “goodwill gesture” to Damascus following the return nearly a month ago of the remains of an Israeli soldier killed in the 1982 Lebanon War.
They were handed over to Red Cross officials at the Quneitra crossing between Israeli and Syrian territory on the Golan Heights at around noon on Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces said in a brief statement.
The two men were earlier identified by Israel as a Fatah operative jailed 14 years ago for an attempted attack on IDF soldiers and a drug smuggler.
Hamis Ahmad, a Fatah operative from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, was jailed in 2005 for an attempt to infiltrate into Israel and attack an Israel Defense Forces base, and was to be held until 2023.
Zidan Tweil, of the Syrian village of Khader, has been jailed since 2008 for drug-related offenses and was to be freed in July. According to the Haaretz newspaper, Tweil claimed during his trial that he was wanted by the Assad regime, saying it falsely believed he had collaborated with Israel against it. It was not immediately clear whether Tweil’s claims were based in fact.
The two had their sentences commuted last week by President Reuven Rivlin to allow for their early release.
Israel confirmed on Saturday that the two Syrians would be released as a gesture to Damascus after the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier who fell in battle in 1982.
The body of tank commander Baumel, believed killed in the First Lebanon War’s Battle of Sultan Yacoub almost 37 years ago, was brought from Syria to Israel about a month ago via Russia.
A Brooklyn-born immigrant, Baumel was one of three Israeli soldiers whose bodies were never recovered following the battle of Sultan Yacoub.
Though Baumel and comrades Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were generally believed to have been killed in the battle, there was also speculation and reports that they were captured by the Syrian military in Sultan Yacoub and brought to Damascus. Feldman and Katz remain officially listed as missing in action, though they are also presumed killed.
Baumel was buried in an emotional ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on April 4.
Israeli officials have insisted that there was no prisoner exchange involved in the return of Baumel’s remains, but Russian officials who helped mediate the return have said otherwise.
Shortly before the April 9 elections in Israel, a senior Israeli diplomatic official said Russia’s help would not have a “diplomatic price tag.”
In recent days, too, a senior Israeli government official said the prisoner release was a “goodwill gesture” that was only decided upon in recent days, and had not been a precondition for Baumel’s return.
The Israeli statement came after Russia’s envoy to Syria announced the prisoner release and indicated that Israel knew there was going to be a reciprocal gesture at the time of the release of Baumel’s remains.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said on Saturday that the operation to recover Baumel’s remains only went ahead because it was deemed in Damascus’s interests as Syrian prisoners would be released from Israeli prisons in exchange.
“In Russia we are very sensitive to the search for missing and dead people, even from World War II,” Lavrentiev told Russia’s RT broadcaster. “For this reason, when the decision to surrender 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,” added Lavrentiev on Saturday morning. “This was an act of interest for the Syrian side. We will not do anything that is contrary to Syria’s interests, but only things that serve them,” Lavrentiev said.
Syria has vehemently denied that Damascus aided in the search and recovery operation to return Baumel to Israel.
During a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that “Russian Army soldiers found the body in coordination with the Syrian military.”
Public involvement in the return of the remains to Israel would be embarrassing for the Syrian government, which is formally at war with Israel.
Putin is a key backer of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, helping him quash a massive civil war over the last several years, and has also maintained mostly positive ties with Israel.