Israel and Syria conclude Russia-mediated prisoner swap

Israeli woman freed by Syria while Israel returned two shepherds to the Syria-controlled side of the Golan Heights.

Syria released an Israeli woman after Israel returned two shepherds to the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights amid a Russian-mediated prisoner swap.

The woman, who has not been publicly identified, had crossed the border into Syria several days ago, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approach Russian President Vladimir Putin in efforts to secure her release, Netanyahu’s office said.

The young woman was on her way home, the Israeli prime minister’s office said on Thursday, following media reports that Russia mediated the prisoner swap.

Little is known about why the woman entered Syria. Israeli media have said she is a former resident of an ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement, while Syrian media said she accidentally entered Syrian territory after crossing from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Media also reported that during negotiations for the two prisoners in Israel, Syrian citizens from the Golan Heights declined to return to Syria as part of the deal, and the shepherds were then released instead.

The shepherds were apprehended several weeks ago after they crossed the so-called “Alpha” armistice line from Syria into Israeli-ruled territory.

They were caught east of the Israeli-constructed security fence on the Golan Heights, the Israel army said, in a statement announcing their release under a government directive.

The Israeli army said they had released the shepherds to Red Cross representatives through the Quneitra Crossing.

The state-run Syrian news agency (SANA) confirmed the release.

“Today, Syrian prisoners Mohammed Ahmed Hussein and Tarek Ghassab al-Obaidan, a resident of Quneitra governorate, were released as part of the Syrian state’s efforts to free its citizens from Israeli occupation prisons,” the agency said.

Russia has previously acted as a mediator between the two countries.

In 2019, Moscow helped to return the remains of an Israeli sergeant from Syria. He had been missing since a 1982 conflict between the countries. Israel had released two Syrian prisoners in exchange.

Russia has in recent years been the strongest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Moscow’s military intervention in 2015 turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.