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Israeli jet departs for Moscow to bring back Israeli woman who crossed to Syria

Government prisoner coordinator Yaron Bloom said on board aircraft, set to bring woman back tonight; earlier, 2 Syrian shepherds freed as prisoner swap made ‘significant’ progress

An IDF vehicle drives along the road parallel to the border fence separating the Israeli and Syrian regions of the Golan Heights, July 19, 2017. (AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)
An IDF vehicle drives along the road parallel to the border fence separating the Israeli and Syrian regions of the Golan Heights, July 19, 2017. (AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)

A business jet took off from Tel Aviv for Moscow Thursday night amid expectations that an Israeli woman held by the Syrian regime would soon be freed and transferred to Israel via Russia.

According to multiple Hebrew media reports, Yaron Bloom, government coordinator for negotiating the return of POWs and MIAs, was on board the plane and would bring the young woman back with him.

The woman, who has yet to be identified, has been in Russian custody since Wednesday and met with Bloom and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat during their visit to Russia on Wednesday, reports said.

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. She likely made several attempts to cross into Syria before succeeding, according to the Ynet news site.

Earlier Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces freed two Syrian shepherds who entered Israeli territory several weeks ago, the army said, in a move widely seen to be part of a prisoner swap with Syria.

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.

Hebrew media outlets, citing Israeli officials, reported Thursday afternoon that Russian-brokered prisoner exchange talks between Israel and Syria had seen “significant” progress and a deal was expected as early as Thursday night.

Israel is seeking the release of the Israeli woman who recently crossed the border and was arrested. 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 agreement had reportedly been temporarily held up by the refusal of two residents of the Golan Heights who are in Israeli prison — the reciprocal side of the swap — to be deported to Damascus.

According to the Ynet news site, Israeli officials assess that the deal will go through Thursday “unless there are any surprises.”

Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of the National Security Council, speaks at a trilateral meeting of the Israeli, US and Russian national security advisers, in Jerusalem on June 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat and hostage coordinator Yaron Bloom returned to Israel Wednesday afternoon after flying to Moscow in the morning to negotiate the woman’s release. The Ynet report said that they had hoped to bring the woman back with them.

In return for the Israeli woman’s release, Israel is expected to free incarcerated Golan Heights residents Nihal Al-Maqt and Dhiyab Qahmuz. However, the two are said to be refusing to be sent to Syria as part of the deal, holding up the completion of the exchange.

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.

Additional unspecified logistical and bureaucratic issues were also contributing to the delay, Channel 12 News said Wednesday, adding Israel may need to provide guarantees to Syria that the two won’t be rearrested if they remain in the country.

When an agreement is reached, the Israeli woman is expected to return to Israel via Russia rather than the Quneitra border crossing with Syria, owing to Moscow’s mediating role, Kan News reported.

Dhiab Qahmuz, the first prisoner on the right, during his trial in Israel for ties with Hezbollah (screenshot: Ynet)

On Wednesday, Syrian state media said the Israeli woman accidentally entered the country near Quneitra. The incident took place two weeks ago, according to Kan News, which suggested she crossed into Syria intentionally.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with Army Radio Wednesday, declined to comment on the negotiations but said: “We are working to save lives. I can just say I’m using my personal connections” with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure her release.

Israel is “at the height of sensitive negotiations” on the issue, he said. “I believe we will resolve it.”

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.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers guard at the Israeli side of the Quneitra Crossing, on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights on March 23, 2019. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Israel’s cabinet held a meeting on a classified “humanitarian issue” related to Syria. Cabinet ministers were called to an urgent, unscheduled vote held via video conference to discuss the unspecified humanitarian issue, which Russia was helping to coordinate.

The details of the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, were largely barred from publication by the military censor.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi have been in contact with their Russian counterparts Vladimir Putin, Sergey Shoygu and Sergey Lavrov, respectively, about the matter.

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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