Syria frees Israeli woman in Russia-brokered prisoner swap

Israel releases two Syrian shepherds in deal made after Benjamin Netanyahu approached Vladimir Putin for help

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu attends a ceremony marking the 4,000,000th person to be vaccinated at Leumit Health Care Services vaccination facility in Jerusalem on February 16, 2021. Israel's largest healthcare provider said a study of more than half a million fully vaccinated Israelis indicated the Pfizer/BioNTech jab gave 94 percent protection against Covid-19. / AFP / POOL / Alex KOLOMIENSKY
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A young Israeli woman arrested after crossing the border into Syria was released under a Russia-mediated prisoner swap, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office announced on Friday.

Mr Netanyahu's office said the woman was on her way home, hours after Israel announced it had returned to Syria two shepherds who crossed into Israeli territory in recent weeks. According to Israeli media reports, Syria sent the 25-year-old woman to Russia, where an Israeli plane was dispatched to bring her home.

Mr Netanyahu thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in the exchange. “I asked for his help, and he indeed acted,” he said, calling the Russian leader “my friend”.

Little is known about why the woman entered Syria. Israeli media said she was a former resident of an ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement, but she has not been publicly identified. Syrian media said she entered Syria by accident after crossing from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.

This picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on February 15, 2021, shows the border fence with the Syrian governorate of Quneitra / AFP / JALAA MAREY

Syrian media first reported the deal on Wednesday, saying that two Syrians were to be exchanged for the Israeli woman.

The two Syrians were identified as Nihal Al Makt, who had been under house arrest in her village in the Golan Heights, and Ziyab Qahmouz, detained in 2016 and serving 14 years in Israeli jails.

But the deal ran into complications when Al Makt and Qahmouz, who are both from the Golan, refused to be transferred to Syria.

Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the territory in 1981, a move not widely recognised internationally.

Syria's official Sana news agency said Al Makt was serving a three-year suspended sentence, along with a year of community service. The woman told Syria's Al-Ikhbariya TV that restrictions placed on her were lifted on Wednesday and she was now free. Mr Netanyahu's office confirmed on Thursday that her sentence had been shortened by three months.

Al-Ikhbariya television said Qahmouz remained in Israeli custody.

Sana reported late on Thursday that two other Syrians – apparently the two shepherds – had been returned to their villages in Quneitra province.