The two Syrian prisoners Israel will release as a “goodwill gesture” to Damascus following the return of an Israeli soldier’s remains are a Fatah operative jailed for an attempted attack on soldiers and a drug smuggler.
Hamis Ahmad, of 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.
Israel confirmed earlier Saturday that the two Syrians would be released as a gesture to Damascus after the return a month ago of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier who fell in battle in 1982.
Hebrew media reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to release the two Syrian prisoners; there was no cabinet discussion of the matter.
According to Israeli law, the release of prisoners as a political gesture or within a diplomatic framework requires the cabinet to discuss the matter and give approval unless there are specific extenuating circumstances.
Government sources told Haaretz and the Ynet website that Mandelblit ruled the case in question did meet that definition, though no details were provided.
It was also not clear whether or why Netanyahu had sought to avoid a cabinet discussion.
Mandelblit’s ruling paved the way for the outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to sign off on the necessary paperwork, so that President Reuven Rivlin could sign the pardon required for the prisoners to be released, the reports said.
Rivlin’s office said Saturday evening that “Once the move was approved by the attorney general, the president enacted his authority to pardon in accordance with [the law].”
A senior government official earlier said the prisoner release would take place as a “goodwill gesture,” adding that the decision was only made in recent days, and claiming it 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 would have to be a reciprocal gesture..
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.
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said earlier Saturday that the operation to recover Baumel’s remains had been in Damascus’s interests as Syrian prisoners would 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.
“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.
“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 Putin’s claim that Damascus aided in the search and recovery operation to return Baumel to Israel.
During a joint press conference with Netanyahu in Moscow earlier this month, Putin said “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.
Tank commander Baumel, a Brooklyn-born immigrant, 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.