A Russian-brokered prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria is being held up by the refusal of two Syrian security prisoners in the Jewish state to be deported to Damascus, Israeli officials told Hebrew media Wednesday.
Israel is seeking the release of an 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.
In return for her release, Israel is expected to free incarcerated Golan Heights residents Nihal Al-Maqt and Dhiyab Qahmuz. However, the two are refusing to be sent to Syria as part of the deal, holding up the completion of the exchange, according to Hebrew media reports.
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 citizenships and identify as Syrian.
Additional unspecified logistical and bureaucratic issues were also contributing to the delay, Channel 12 news said, adding Israel may need to provide guarantees to Syria that the two won’t be rearrested if they remain in the country.
Despite the snag, officials were quoted saying they believed the issue will be resolved and the deal will go through in the coming days.
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.
Earlier, Syrian state media said the Israeli woman accidentally entered the country near Quneitra. The incident took place two weeks ago, according to Kan, which suggested she crossed into Syria intentionally.
The latest reports came as National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat and hostage coordinator Yaron Bloom returned to Israel after flying to Moscow in the morning to negotiate the woman’s release.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with Army Radio, 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.
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.