Israel to release Syrian prisoners as ‘goodwill gesture’ after return of Baumel

Official says decision to free 2 Syrians wasn’t made in advance; ministers say cabinet hasn’t discussed it; body of Zachary Baumel, missing since 1982, was returned in early April

Zachary Baumel. (JTA/Courtesy Miriam Baumel)
Zachary Baumel. (JTA/Courtesy Miriam Baumel)

A senior official confirmed Saturday that Israel will release two Syrian prisoners after the return earlier this month of the remains of an IDF soldier lost in a 1982 battle.

The Israeli official said the prisoner release would take place as a “goodwill gesture,” adding that the decision was only made in recent days.

Two ministers told Channel 13 news that the decision was made without cabinet discussion or approval. According to Israeli law, the release of prisoners within a diplomatic framework requires government approval, but according to Channel 12 news, this was bypassed with the consent of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

The body of tank commander Zachary Baumel, presumably killed in the First Lebanon War’s Battle of Sultan Yacoub almost 37 years ago, was brought from Syria to Israel earlier this month.

Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of Zachary Baumel at the Mount Herzl Military cemetery in Jerusalem on April 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the time, a senior diplomatic official said that Russia’s help in the return of Baumel’s remains would not have a “diplomatic price tag” linked to the situation in Syria.

The Israeli statement came after Russia’s envoy to Syria announced the prisoner release.

Russian official Alexander Lavrentiev said Saturday that the operation to recover Baumel’s remains was in Damascus’s interests as Syrian prisoners will be released from Israeli prisons.

“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.

In this photo released by Lebanon’s official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Russia’s special presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, speaks to journalist at the presidential palace, in Baabda east of Beirut, Lebanon, July 26, 2018 (Dalati Nohra via AP)

“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, who serves as President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria.

Lavrentiev did not go into detail about why the Syrian citizens were being held in Israel. The Haaretz daily noted that several residents from Druze villages in the Golan Heights are currently being held for security offenses.

“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,” he said.

Syria has vehemently denied Putin’s claim that Damascus aided in the search and recovery operation to return Baumel to Israel.

A Syria-based official with Palestinian terror group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, said that insurgents who were in control of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus up until last year excavated graves in search of the remains of the three missing soldiers — Baumel and comrades Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz. The group has made a similar claim in the past.

Syrian Information Minister Imad Sara claimed at the time on state TV that Russia had also not been involved. “What we believe is that the entire operation was carried out between Israel and the armed terrorist groups in Syria.”

During a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow earlier this month, Putin said “Russian Army soldiers found the body in coordination with the Syrian military.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the funeral of Zachary Baumel at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on April 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Public involvement in the return of the remains to Israel would be embarrassing for the Syrian government, which is technically 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.

In 2016, Moscow gave Israel a tank which had been captured during the same June 11, 1982 battle between Israeli and Syrian forces near the Lebanese border town of Sultan Yacoub. Israel said 21 soldiers were killed and five were captured, including two later returned alive.

Tank commander Baumel, a Brooklyn-born immigrant, was one of three Israeli soldiers whose bodies were never recovered following the skirmish.

Though Baumel, Feldman and 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.

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