Druze prisoner Sidqi Al-Maqt, who was released Friday morning from an Israeli prison in which he was incarcerated for spying on behalf of Syria, has returned to his home in the Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office stated Thursday that it agreed to the release of al-Maqt and another prisoner, Amal Abu Salah, as a "gesture of goodwill" toward Syria following the return of an Israeli soldier's remains in a joint Russian-Syrian operation last year.
Al-Maqt arrived at the Quneitra area followed by a convoy of cars flying Syrian flags. Dozens of cheering family members, friends and supporters gathered there received him. "This is a day of victory for me and for the Syrian people," he told foreign reporters at the scene, "a victory over the Israeli occupation."
Al-Maqt was sentenced in 2017 to 14 years in prison for security offenses, among them spying and contact with a foreign agent. He is regarded as one of the leaders of the security prisoners jailed in Israel, and is known for his resistance to Israel's right to exist as well as for his fervent support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"I was freed only according to the conditions laid out by Syria. I did not agree to Israel's impositions," he said, adding that Israel offered him freedom a month ago if he agreed to move to Damascus instead of returning to the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams. He was draped in a scarf displaying the Syrian flag alongside Abu Salah, also of Majdal Shams, who was convicted of killing a Syrian citizen.
Al-Maqt, who refused to give interviews to Israeli outlets, thanked Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. He also noted that he wasn't sure whether Putin's surprise visit to Damascus two days ago helped expedite his release.
Al-Maqt said he was only told he would be let out on Thursday night. Asked whether his release was part of a broader deal, he said: "I don't know and I don't really care."
After visiting Quneitra, he went on a tour of Druze villages in the Golan Heights en route to his Majdal Shams home. There, locals from nearby villages and from the Arab Israeli community are holding a welcome party for the two freed prisoners.
Dr. Wasaf Hater, a close friend of al-Maqt and his family, told Haaretz that the latter's release is a significant event for Syrian residents of the Golan Heights. "I bless the Syrian president and the Russian president because this is a victory for them. The release of al-Maqt is also a symbol of Syria's victory in the fight against terror and the fight against Israel and the United States. We really hope that the release is part of a bigger deal to release more Palestinian and Arab prisoners being held in Israeli jails."
- Israel releases two prisoners, among them a Druze who spied for Syria
- Golan Heights' Druze expected their prisoners to be released in exchange for Israeli soldier
- Both prisoners Israel set to release ask not to be returned to Syria
In April, when IDF soldier Zachary Baumel's remains were returned to Israel in a deal mediated by Russia, al-Maqt's family had expressed hope that he would be freed in return. Eventually, two other Syrian prisoners who were jailed in Israel were released instead. One of them was incarcerated for drug dealing, and the other, a Palestinian, was jailed for planning a terror attack.
In November, The head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club told Haaretz that Russia had advanced the release of al-Maqt in talks with Israel. Sources familiar with the talks told Haaretz at the time that the Russian military attaché met with al-Maqt in jail and told him that he could be freed if he agrees not to return to the Golan Heights, and instead move to Damascus.