Russia has been mediating a prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria, Israeli officials confirmed on Wednesday. The possible prisoner swap was the focus of the secret cabinet meeting on Tuesday ahead of which ministers were warned to keep secret and the detail of which were censored by the IDF.
According to the agreement being negotiated, Syria would free an Israeli teenage girl from the haredi town of Modi’in Illit. The Syrian state news agency said on Wednesday that she crossed the border “by mistake” and was immediately arrested.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is “in the midst of a sensitive negotiation, working to save lives.”“I am using my ties with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to solve the problem,” he added, in an interview with Army Radio.
Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and hostage negotiation coordinator Yaron Bloom flew to Moscow on Wednesday to continue talks.Israel plans to release from prison two residents of Golan Heights towns in which many residents are loyal to Syria. The Syrian statement referred to Nihal al-Maqt of Majdal Shams and Diyab Kahmuz of Ghajar as Syrian nationals being held in Israeli prison.
Khamuz was part of a Hezbollah cell and convicted for helping the enemy, giving information to the enemy, contact with a foreign agent, importing arms and selling dangerous drugs, among other crimes, and sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2018. He refused to leave prison on Wednesday, due to the terms of the agreement, which would require him to go to Syria and not return to Ghajar.
Maqt, a woman, has served multiple prison sentences, and was charged with three years in 2020 on security offenses. She too, sought to return to her hometown and not go to Syria. Her brother was released from prison in 2019, in another Russia-negotiated exchange with Syria, for the body of Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier declared missing in 1982.
The Syrian report came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastily called an Israeli cabinet meeting over a humanitarian matter, held over secure video link.
The content of the meeting was censored by the IDF, other than the fact that Israel had asked Russia for help with what was vaguely referred to as a humanitarian matter in Syria.Last week, there was an unusual level of communication between senior Israeli and Russian officials, including phone calls between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Gantz’s office released a statement after the call, which said they discussed “security challenges in the Middle East generally, and Syria in particular.”
In addition, Israel’s Ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi met with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Col.-Gen. Alexander Fomin, in Moscow last week, according to Russia's Defense Ministry, and on Tuesday, Ben Zvi met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.
Simultaneously last week, the website of the English language Arabic paper, Asharq Al-Awsat, reported that the Russian military had searched for the remains of Israeli soldiers in a cemetery near a Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus.
The article speculated that the Russian military searched for the remains of solders Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who have been missing since the 1982 battle of Sultan Yacoub, which took place in Lebanon, near the Syrian border.
One the eve of the April 2019 election, Russia helped Israel locate the remains of IDF Sgt. Zachary Baumel, who also went missing during that battle. His body was flown back to Israel and buried at Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl military cemetery.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.