MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights (AP) — Israel released two more Syrian prisoners back to the occupied Golan Heights on Friday, a second goodwill gesture to Russia for helping find the remains of an Israeli soldier missing for over 35 years.
The latest release was part of a swap that began last April. That's when Israel, with help from Russia, recovered the remains of the soldier, Zachary Baumel. In return, Israel released two Syrian prisoners to their home country that same month.
Baumel, a U.S. citizen from New York, went missing in 1982 along with five other Israeli soldiers during a fierce battle with Syrian forces in Lebanon.
Russian special forces discovered Baumel's remains. Russia is a close ally of the Syrian government in the country's ongoing civil war, while Israel frequently strikes targets linked to Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which back the government.
The goodwill gesture's timing game came just a few days after Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare visit to Damascus and met with President Bashar Assad.
The two Syrian men who were released Friday had been arrested separately in 2015 — one on charges of spying for Syria and the other for killing another Syrian citizen in the Golan Heights.
The two arrived at the Druze village of Majdal Shams, located in the part of the Golan Heights that Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed. Relatives and friends waving Syrian flags greeted the men.
Most of the Golan's Arab and Druze residents, who make about half of the area’s 50,000 population, declined Israeli citizenship as a show of loyalty to Syria. They hold Israeli residency status, but an identity crisis has simmered for decades.
“This is a very special moment. This is a moment of victory for the Syrian will,” said Sidqi al-Maqt, one of the freed prisoners as he arrived in a symbolic visit to the Quneitra border checkpoint.
Al-Maqt, 53, was serving an 11-year sentence for charges including espionage and treason. The other, Amal Abu Saleh, 26, was sentenced to seven years for attacking an Israeli ambulance and killing a Syrian wounded in the ongoing fighting in neighboring Syria.
It’s unclear if the exchange was related to Israeli efforts to release an Israeli woman detained while transiting through a Moscow airport in possession of a few grams of marijuana. Russia upheld the seven-and-a-half-year imprisonment sentence against the tourist, Naama Issachar.
Fares Akram in Gaza contributed reporting.