Israel released on January 10 two Syrian prisoners, in what the country called a “diplomatic goodwill gesture” towards the Damascus government.
The release of the prisoners was done as a response to the repatriation of the body of Sergeant first class Zechariah Baumel, a U.S.-born Israeli tank commander who went missing in battle during the 1982 Lebanon War. Baumel’s remains were transferred from Syria to Israel with direct help from Russia in April of 2019.
Both freed Syrians, Sidqi al-Maqt and Amal Abu Salah, were residents of a Druze village in the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
Al-Maqt was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2017 for spying on Israeli military positions on behalf of Syrian intelligence. He was arrested on 2015 allegedly for passing photographs and written reports on Israeli positions to Syrian intelligence officials.
Prior to that al-Maqt spent 27 years behind bars in Israel, also for spying. He was released for the first time in 2012.
Upon his release, al-Maqt thanked Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The freed Syrian refused to take photos with Israeli officials.
“The Syrian resolve overcame the resolve of the occupation and the enemy … My release was without conditions, to the chagrin of the occupation,” the Times of Israel quoted al-Maqt as saying.
The second freed Syrian, Abu Salah, was arrested in 2015 for taking part in a mob attack, which claimed the life of an injured Syrian militant who was being transported to receive medical treatment in Israel. Abu Salah was serving a seven years and eight months sentence.
Last April, Israel released two other Syrian prisoners, including a Fateh activist who attempted to abduct an Israeli soldier, as a “goodwill gesture” following the repatriation of Baumel’s remains.
Russia, whose President is set to visit Tel Aviv later this year, likely played a key role in securing the release of the four Syrian prisoners.