Israel and Syria are intensively negotiating a prisoner exchange deal with Russian mediation, in which two incarcerated residents of the Israeli Golan could reportedly be released in exchange for a young Israeli woman who entered Syrian territory by mistake.
The woman has not been identified. According to Channel 12, she is a 25-year-old formerly Haredi woman from Modi’in Ilit who left the ultra-Orthodox community. It is not clear why she crossed into Syrian territory.
Syrian state media announced on Wednesday: “The exchange is taking place through Russian mediation to liberate the Syrians Nihal Al-Maqt and Dhiyab Qahmuz, the Syrian prisoner from the occupied Syrian Golan, in an exchange during which a young Israeli woman who entered the Syrian territories by mistake will be released. She entered the Quneitra region by mistake and was arrested by the Syrian authorities.”
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.”
National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat and hostage coordinator Yaron Bloom left Wednesday morning for Moscow to negotiate the release of the Israeli woman, according to Hebrew media reports.
The two prisoners Israel has reportedly been asked to release are residents of the Golan Heights. 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.
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.
Al-Maqt’s brother Sidqi was released last year in a prisoner exchange, also mediated by Russia, that came after Syria returned the remains of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier killed in a 1982 battle.
Al-Maqt was indicted by an Israeli court in 2017 for incitement, according to Syrian media. On Wednesday afternoon, she told Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV that she had been released from house arrest.
“I am now free in my homeland,” al-Maqt said.
According to al-Maqt, she had already been released from prison after serving three years in jail. She was to complete the final year of her sentence under house arrest with very strict conditions.
“If I step a toe outside of my house, they can arrest me and put me back in prison,” al-Maqt said.
Several soldiers came to her house on Wednesday morning and offered to remove the conditions if she were to leave Israel for Damascus, al-Maqt said.
Al-Maqt said that she refused, asking to be released unconditionally and allowed to remain in the Golan — a request which she said was granted.
Qahmuz, a resident of Ghajar in the Golan Heights, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2018 for plotting a terror bombing in coordination with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
According to a 2016 indictment, Qahmuz, an Israeli citizen, contacted Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon and they handed him explosives intended to be detonated at bus stations in Haifa.
As with al-Maqt, the Qahmuzes have a family history with Israeli law enforcement: his father Sa’ad, who lives in Lebanon, is said to be a member of Hezbollah, and Qahmuz was convicted along with his brothers Jamal and Jamil, as well as his cousin Muheysin.
According to the Shin Bet, Qahmuz’s father Sa’ad was a drug dealer who fled to Lebanon in October 2006 and began working with Hezbollah. Sa’ad mediated between his son and the Lebanese terror organization.
In May 2016, the Shin Bet said Diab received two explosive devices from Hezbollah, which he planted in an orchard south of Metula. The devices were discovered by Israeli security forces, who arrested him and five accomplices in September 2016.
It is not clear whether he would be sent to Syria or allowed to return to his village in the Golan.
“Negotiations are still underway over whether he will be transferred to Syria or to his village of Ghajar in the occupied Golan. The prisoner insists that he be released to his village,” the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said in a statement.
According to the Prisoners’ Club, which is funded by the Palestinian Authority, Qahmuz was summoned by the administration of his prison in southern Israel and informed of the ongoing exchange process on Wednesday morning.
But Qahmuz reportedly insisted that he would not agree to be released to Syria; the prisoner said he would only consent to return to his home village of Ghajar.
“Qahmuz refused the deal, insisted on returning home, and now he has returned to where he was festering in prison,” the Prisoners’ Club said.
The reports came a day after 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.
Header: A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watchtower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP/Ariel Schalit)