2 Syrians held in Israel to be released in prisoner exchange
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — With the help of Russian mediation, Damascus has negotiated the release of two Syrians held by Israel in exchange for releasing an Israeli woman that entered Syria by mistake, Syria’s official news agency reported Wednesday.
One of the Syrian prisoners, Nihal al-Makt, had been under house arrest, serving a three-year suspended sentence and reporting for a year to Israeli authorities daily. She spoke from her home to Syrian TV later on Wednesday.
“I am free in my country with no conditions attached and no (Israeli) authority over me,” al-Makt told Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV, speaking through Skype after the exchange.
Both al-Makt and the other Syrian, Ziyab Qahmouz, were from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, the state SANA news agency said.
Qahmouz, detained in 2016 and serving 14 years in Israeli jails, refused to be released, demanding instead that he be returned to his native village of Ghajar in the Golan. Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed it in 1981, a move that is not recognized internationally.
Qahmouz remained in Israeli custody Wednesday, Al-Ikhbariya TV said.
SANA did not provide details on the Israeli woman who was reportedly released in the exchange or say when she entered Syria.
Asked about the swap during an interview with Israel’s army radio station, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was using his personal connections with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to resolve the matter. He declined to elaborate, saying only that he was working in a “discrete and responsible” manner.
Al-Makt comes from a family of a number of former prisoners in Israeli prisons. She was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor after being detained in 2017. But the sentence was suspended and she has had to report to Israeli authorities every morning from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m., she told Al-Ikhbariya TV.
She said she was asked by Israel to move to Damascus, a condition to put an end to her sentence. But she refused, and after Moscow’s mediation, was allowed to stay in her home in Majdl Shams, a village in the Golan.
Al-Makt’s brother was the longest-held prisoner in Israeli jails after spending nearly 30 years there. He was released in an exchange of prisoners last year, also mediated by Russia, that came after Syria returned the remains of an Israeli soldier killed in a 1982 battle.
SANA said the Israeli woman entered Syria’s Quneitra province by mistake and was taken into Syrian custody. Israeli officials declined to comment. There was no immediate Russian comment.
Israeli media reported late Tuesday that the Israeli government had convened for deliberations regarding a recent incident related to Syria. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that communication with Damascus, related to humanitarian issues, were mediated by Russia.