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Israeli woman who crossed into Syria returns to Israel on flight from Moscow

Civilian who had been held by Syrian regime arrives in Tel Aviv after Israel frees 2 shepherds it nabbed at border; Netanyahu thanks Putin for his help mediating her release

An Israeli military outpost in the Golan Heights is pictured from the Syrian town of Quneitra on March 26, 2019. (Louai Beshara/AFP)
An Israeli military outpost in the Golan Heights is pictured from the Syrian town of Quneitra on March 26, 2019. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

An Israeli woman who crossed into Syria and had been held by the Syrian regime landed in Israel in the early hours of Friday morning after over a week of diplomatic wrangling to secure her return.

The woman, who has not been identified, flew from Moscow and landed at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. She spoke with her family before takeoff and was expected to be questioned by the Shin Bet internal security service, according to Hebrew media reports.

Israel released two Syrian shepherds and reduced the sentence of a Golan Heights resident on Thursday in what was widely seen as an exchange deal.

Accompanying the woman on the flight were Asher Hayun, a staffer for Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

The Israeli woman who crossed into Syria and was returned in a deal brokered by Russia, in a picture released on Feburary 20, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

The Prime Minister’s Office in an earlier statement said the woman was on her way back to Israel.

“At this time an Israeli citizen is making her way to Israel after crossing the border into Syria and being held by the Syrians,” the statement said.

“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,” Netanyahu said in the statement.

“Israel has always done and will always do everything in its power to bring its citizens home,” Netanyahu 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 and said Israel was releasing two Syrian shepherds who crossed into Israel as a gesture of goodwill. The move was widely seen as a prisoner swap with Syria. The statement also said Israel will shorten the sentence of Nihal Al-Maqt, an incarcerated Golan Heights resident.

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

The statement did not mention Dhiyab Qahmuz, another Golan Heights resident imprisoned by Israel who was part of the talks, and did not say if Al-Maqt was returning to the Israeli Golan or being deported to Syria, which had reportedly been a sticking point in negotiations.

The woman, who hasn’t been identified, is reportedly a 25-year-old from Modiin Illit who left the ultra-Orthodox community. It is unclear why she entered Syria. The Kan public broadcaster said she had crossed the border around two weeks ago.

The Axios news site, citing Israeli officials, said she had studied Arabic and in the past had been prevented from crossing the southern border into Gaza.

The woman had been in Russian custody since Wednesday and met with Blum and Ben-Shabbat during their visit to Russia on Wednesday, reports said.

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat during a ceremony before boarding an El Al plane to Bahrain to sign a series of bilateral agreements between Jerusalem and Manama, at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel October18, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL via FLASH90)

She was examined by an Israeli doctor and found to be in good health.

Hebrew media reports said the woman crossed into Syria near Mount Hermon, in an area that does not have a security fence. She is believed to have gotten there through a valley that leads from the community of Majdal Shams.

Earlier Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces freed the two Syrian shepherds who entered Israeli territory, the army said.

The Syrians were handed over to the Red Cross at the Quneitra crossing into Syria, the IDF said, in a move that was backed by the government. The military gave no further details on the identity of the men, but Syria’s SANA news agency confirmed the swap, identifying the “Syrian prisoners” as Mohamed Hussein and Tarek al-Obeidan.

The agreement had reportedly been temporarily held up by the refusal of the two residents of the Golan Heights who are in Israeli prison — the reciprocal side of the swap — to be deported to Syria.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 during the Six Day War and annexed it in 1981. Many residents of the region retain Syrian citizenship and identify as Syrian.

Al-Maqt, a resident of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights, comes from a family of prisoners, all of whom oppose Israeli rule over the zone. She was indicted by an Israeli court in 2017 for incitement, according to Syrian media. Al-Maqt told Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV on Wednesday afternoon that she had been released from house arrest.

Qahmuz, a resident of Ghajar in the Golan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2018 for plotting a terror bombing in coordination with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Members of his family also have a history with Israeli law enforcement.

The Axios news site, citing Israeli officials, said that the woman had entered a Syrian village and spoke with local people, who apparently alerted the military. She was then detained and questioned by Syrian intelligence, which believed she was a spy.

The Syrians alerted Russian forces in Syria, who told Israel the details of the capture. Israel asked Russia to mediate talks and Syria agreed to a prisoner exchange.

The Russians wanted Israel to rein in its airstrikes in Syria as part of the deal, Moscow said.

The IDF went to the Israel-Syria border area to look for bargaining chips after talks started and captured the shepherds after they crossed into Israel for the purpose of a prisoner exchange, Axios reported.

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 technically remain in a state of war.

On Friday afternoon, 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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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