Israel to release Syrian prisoners for Baumel remains, names released - report

The remains of IDF soldier Sgt.Zachary Baumel was repatriated to Israel 40 years after he went missing in action.

April 27, 2019 23:17
4 minute read.
Israel to release Syrian prisoners for Baumel remains, names released - report

ZACHARY BAUMEL is laid to rest last week.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Israel announced Saturday it will release two Syrians held in IsraelI jails as a good will gesture following the return of the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel, in a decision that sparked criticism because it did not go through the necessary channels.

Russia's special envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev revealed the prisoner release on Friday in an interview with Russia’s RT broadcaster in Arabic.

“In Russia we are very sensitive to the search for missing and dead people, even from World War II,” he said. “For this reason, when the decision to transfer the body [Baumel's] was made, we thanked the Syrian side for their understanding 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.”

The body's retrieval "paid off for Syria in the end," Lavrentyev said, adding that Russia "would never act in way that contradicts Syria's interests."

Baumel’s remains were repatriated to Israel earlier this month, close to 40 years after he went missing following the battle of Sultan Yacoub, a skirmish between the IDF and the Syrian army in the Bekaa Valley in June 1982, during the First Lebanon War.

An Israeli official confirmed on Saturday that Syrian prisoners are to be released, but stressed that the decision was made in the last few days as a goodwill gesture to the Syrians, after – not before – Baumel's remains were repatriated.

“Israel is working tirelessly to restore the POWs and MIAs and will continue to act while safeguarding Israel's security,” the official added, hinting that this move may have been necessary to recover the remains of other Israelis being held in Syria.

The release of the prisoners was approved by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, and the pardon was signed by President Reuven Rivlin, but was not discussed or approved by the government, as stipulated by a reading of the law. The law states that prisoner releases made as a diplomatic gesture need to be approved by the government.

The president of Israel the authority to pardon convicted felons or to commute their sentences.

"When the matter reached the President's desk and due to the circumstances, the Presidential Appeals Department appealed to the Attorney General's opinion to approve the move. After the approval of the Attorney-General, the President exercised his authority to pardon under the Basic Law the President of the State,” Rivlin’s office said in a statement on Saturday night.

Kan News reported that the prisoner release was originally scheduled to take part during the Passover holiday, but was delayed by the sudden death a week ago of Maj.-Gen. Francis Vib-Sanziri, the head of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights (UNDOF), who was to facilitate the transfer.

According to this report, Israel's decision to release the prisoner came following an appeal from Russia, which was on the receiving end of Syrian anger at reports of the Israeli-Russian effort to repatriate Baumel's remains.

The two prisoners set to be released have been identified in the media as Zidan Tuil, a resident of Khader who was jailed in Israel after being convicted of drug smuggling and was expected to be released this July, and Hamis Ahmed, a Fatah activist and a resident of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, who was sentenced to prison until 2023 after he was caught in plot to infiltrate an IDF base in the southern Golan Heights in 2005 in order to injure or kidnap IDF soldiers.

Israel has denied that the repatriation of Baumel’s remains were part of any prisoner exchange, with IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis telling reporters that  that it was an operational mission carried out by military intelligence.

Baumel’s remains were retrieved by Russian forces from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria’s capital of Damascus earlier this month. According to report in Hezbollah-affiliated Al Mayadeen, Anwar Raja of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) – a pro-Syrian regime Palestinian militia– said that the remains had been found as they were excavating graves in the old Martyr’s cemetery.

The report said that  the locating of the remains was done in coordination with Israeli intelligence in an operation called Bittersweet Song.

Israel’s Operation Bittersweet Song took two years to complete and was made possible by Israel’s close cooperation with Russia. According to a report in Ynet News, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman had pushed for the operation to take place. The operation, Ynet reported, was brought to a standstill in September following the downing of a Russian military aircraft during an Israeli operation.

That same month Russia claimed that its military worked with Israel on an operation to locate the remains of the fallen IDF soldiers that were in Syrian territory, which had been under the control of Islamic State.

Baumel’s remains, along with his jumpsuit and shoes, were transferred from Syria to Russia and then to Israel in early April. He was laid to rest at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

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