Israel frees two Syrian prisoners after return of soldier’s body

Israel has released two Syrian prisoners in what it described as a “goodwill gesture” following the repatriation of the remains of an Israeli soldier who went missing more than 35 years ago.

In a statement on Sunday, the Israeli military said the two prisoners were transferred to the International Committee of the Red Cross at the Quneitra crossing on the armistice line with the Syrian Golan Heights.

Israel’s Prisons Service identified the freed men as Ahmed Khamis, from a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, and Zidan Taweel, from the Syrian Druze village of Hader.

Khamis was a member of the Fatah faction who was jailed in 2005 after trying to attack an Israeli army base, and Taweel was jailed in 2008 for drug smuggling, the prisons service said.

Syria’s state-run SANA news agency published photos of the two men shortly after their return to Syria.

The move came after Russia, a key Damascus ally, handed Israel the remains and personal effects of Zachary Baumel, who was declared missing in action along with two other soldiers during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Israeli soldiers fought against Syrian forces in a battle on June 10-11, 1982, in the Lebanese village of Sultan Yacoub, near the Syrian border.

The Syrian government denied any knowledge of Baumel’s whereabouts and said it was not involved in the repatriation of his remains.

An Israeli official, speaking to the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity, said Israel agreed to release the prisoners as a “goodwill gesture” after the return of Baumel’s remains.

The decision was not part of a pre-arranged deal, the official said.

Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister for regional cooperation, said the prisoner release did not constitute a swap with Syria but voiced hope that it might help with the recovery of other Israelis lost to the Syrians in past wars.

“If with a gesture like this we leave the Syrians with less of a sour taste, then that is a positive thing,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.

Russia is acting as an intermediary between Syria and Israel.

In an interview with Russia Today on Friday, Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s special envoy to Syria, said that “a number of Syrian citizens will be released from Israeli jails.”