Golan Heights' Druze Expected Their Prisoners to Be Released in Exchange for Israeli Soldier

Israel released two Syrians after the remains of Zachary Baumel were returned from Syria - but did not release prisoners from the Golan Heights because the state identifies them as Israeli and not Syrian

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Sidqi al-Maqt at the time of his arrest, Nazareth, 2015.
Sidqi al-Maqt at the time of his arrest, Nazareth, 2015.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Residents of the Druze town of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights are enraged that Israel did not release two prisoners from their town, Sidqi al-Maqt and Amal Abu Saleh, in exchange for the body of Zachary Baumel. Instead, Israel released Ahmed Khamis and Zidan Tawil on Sunday, handing them over to the Red Cross via the Kuneitra crossing.

"We were sure that the two prisoners being released would be Al-Maqt and Abu Saleh," a pro-Syrian activist in Majdal Shams told Haaretz. "Even in Syria there were such reports. We don't understand why they weren't included in the deal, especially Al-Maqt who is a symbol of the national struggle for the residents of the Golan," he said.

Al-Maqt, who had served 27 years in an Israeli prison for security violations, was re-incarcerated after being convicted of spying for Syria. Abu Saleh was convicted of manslaughter in a 2015 incident where residents of Majdal Shams blocked an Israeli ambulance that was attempting to transport two wounded Syrians.

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Al-Maqt's family said they had received information from Syria that he would be released. "We're very disappointed. It's a very tough feeling," a relative told Haaretz on Sunday. "The message will reach Damascus and Moscow too. We're waiting for an official explanation from the two capitals. How does such a thing happen? Why were the two Golan Heights prisoners not included in the deal?" he added.

A relative of Abu Saleh said he hoped that “there would be more phases of the deal and that they’ll both be released.”

Residents of the Druze villages in the Golan Heights, especially Majdal Shams, reject the notion that the two men were not released because Israel considers them Israeli prisoners and not Syrian prisoners. "No one could accept that claim," a person close to Al-Maqt told Haaretz. "Sudki Al-Maqt and most of the people here see themselves as Syrian citizens. It's the Syrian government's obligation to take care of them and ask for their release in any deal," he added.

Ahmed Khamis and Zidan Tawil were released by Israel on Sunday as a gesture of "good will" following the return of the body of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier who had been missing for 37 years in Syria.

Khamis, 35, is a Palestinian from the Yarmuk refugee camp near Damascus. He was sentenced to 18 years after he crossed the border into Israel in 2005 and entered a military outpost in the Golan Heights. He was indicted for attempted kidnapping, membership in a terrorist organization, entering the country illegally and weapons charges.

Tawil, 57, is from the Syrian village of Khadar. He was convicted of smuggling dozens of kilograms of drugs across the border into Israel. He was shot during his arrest and is now disabled. At his trial, he claimed that the Syrian government was persecuting him for cooperating with Israel.

As reported on Saturday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit bypassed the cabinet in authorizing the release of the prisoners. Mendelblit is required by law to obtain an approval from the cabinet, but an Israeli official explained that in this case he was allowed to forgo the involvement of the government due to special circumstances. They added that the Justice Ministry and the president’s office had been involved in the move and that the pardon had been signed by President Reuven Rivlin.

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