Israel Releases Two Prisoners to Syria Through Golan Heights

The two, a Fatah operative and a drug smuggler, were taken by the Red Crescent emergency services through the Qunteira Crossing. Both asked not to be returned to Syria

A Red Cross vehicle crosses the border between Israel and Syria at Qunteira in the Golan Heights, on Sunday, April 28, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The Syrian prisoners who Israel confirmed Saturday it will release following the return of the body of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel were moved into Syria through the Golan Heights on Sunday, the Israeli army said.

The two are a Fatah operative jailed for attempting to kidnap Israeli soldiers and a prisoner jailed for smuggling drugs. Both asked not to be returned to Syria.

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Earlier Saturday it was confirmed that Israel was releasing two Syrian prisoners as a gesture of "good will" after the return of Baumel's body, denying it was part of any deal. Russia's Syria envoy said Friday however that Israel agreed to release the Syrians in return for Baumel's body and Syrian sources confirmed the deal to Reuters. 

Baumel's body was retrieved by Russian forces from a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria earlier this month after missing for 37 years

Ahmad Khamis and Zidan Tawil on the Syrian side of the Qunteira Crossing in the Golan Heights, on Sunday, April 28, 2019.
AP

Druze in the Golan Heights expressed anger and frustration when the identity of the two prisoners was revealed.

Israel holds several pro-Syrian activists who live in the Druze villages of the Golan Heights over security offenses, and there was hope that those activists would be released. The most prominent activist Israel holds, which wasperson most expected to be released, is Sidqi al-Maqt, who already served a 27-year sentence before returning to political activity.

Al-Maqt worked for a news channel affiliated with the Bashar Assad regime, and published an article claiming Israel was cooperating with Syrian opposition forces. In 2017, he was convicted of spying for Syria and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Speaking to Haaretz, al-Maqt's family said they received hints their son was included in the deal, but no official confirmation was given. They said that in addition to him, Israel held another resident of the Golan. The family was unaware that Israel held other Syrian citizens.

The prisoners who were released are both Syrian citizens. 

Fatah operative Ahmad Khamis, 35, was sentenced to 18 years in jail in 2005 after he crossed the border and entered an Israeli military outpost in the Golan Heights to kidnap soldiers. 

Ahmad Khamis and Zidan Tawil.

According to Palestinian sources, Israeli security officials informed Khamis earlier this week that he is set to be released in the coming days as part of a prisoner exchange deal mediated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Khamis, who is held in the Fatah ward of Ketziot security prison, was supposed to be released on Thursday already but has yet to be let out.

According to the sources, Khamis told security officials that he refuses to go back to Syria and requested to be sent to the Palestinian city of Hebron where his wife resides. Khamis spoke to his wife after he crossed in Syria and told her Israel rejected his request to move to Hebron.

Khamis, who comes from the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Syria, joined Fatah in 2000, according to the indictment, and was trained in Yarmouk as well as in the Ein al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon, where he underwent weapons training. He is not considered to be high up in the Fatah ranks.

According to the indictment, Khamis refused to carry out an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Syria out of fear that he would harm Syrian security guards, offering instead to harm an outpost in the Golan.

The operation was scheduled for April 14, 2005, which signified the anniversary of the death of Abu Jihad, Yasser Arafat's late legendary deputy. Khamis carried a hunting rifle and bullets with him and managed to cross the border by digging under the fence.

When Khamis reached the military outpost, however, an officer noticed him and he was stopped. He was sentenced for 18 years and was set to be released in 2023.  

The second prisoner Israel is set to release is Zidan Tawil, 58, from the Syrian town of Khader. He was arrested in July 2008 for crossing into Israel while carrying large amounts of drugs, including 13.5 kilograms (29 lbs) of heroin and a kilogram (2.2 lbs) of cocaine, for which he was supposed to receive $20,000.

>> Read more: Israel to release Syrian prisoners following return of Israeli soldier's body ■ Recovery of soldier's body reopens 37-year-old wound ■ Secret burial place, intel feat, and a 3rd country: Behind the retrieval of the Israeli soldier's body 

During his trial, Tawil claimed he had previously cooperated with Israeli security forces and is therefore "persecuted by Syrian authorities."

In his testimony at court, Tawil complained about the Assad government.

“I have been wanted by the Syrian regime for 15 years,” he said at the start of his trial in January 2010. “They killed my brother, his wife and my nephew. Syria captured my village. There was murder and mayhem between us. I’m the person who captured a Syrian officer responsible for the frontlines there [in Khader]. They captured my house and took my family.”

He testified that in 2008 he was questioned by the Israeli Shin Bet security service but claimed he didn’t cooperate and that he told his interrogators they knew more than he did. He denied involvement in drug smuggling.

“Syria accused me of being an agent of Israel’s, Israel accuses me of being a drug dealer. Everyone has a different accusation. I reject all the Syrian and Israeli charges.”

He later said that Syria "killed my brother and since then I have taken revenge on the state of Syria. They hurt my house, my family, nephews, and sisters.”

The judges said in the verdict that if Tawil did assist the Israeli security force, this did not help him. “The accused’s claim that he contributed to state security and cooperated with Israeli agents and was paid for doing so was not proven and provides no mitigating circumstances, for if his claim is correct then he exploited his freedom of movement along the border and violated the trust in him in order to carry out crimes whose damage to Israeli residents was serious.”

Tawil was injured by Israeli fire when he was caught and has remained disabled. 

Judge Esther Helmo took into consideration Tawil’s injury during his arrest and the anticipated difficulties of his Syrian citizenship. "The difficulties anticipated for the accused in carrying out his sentence in the absence of a supportive family of visitors and since in the future it is doubtful he will be able to meet with his family - all these are data that must be taken into account in the sentencing and he should not be subjected to the full force of the law.” 

He was sentenced to 11 years and was set to be released in July 2019. He served his sentence in Tsalmon prison, which does not hold security prisoners.

Tawil was also sentenced for two other drug-smuggling offenses from Syria into Israel, including heroin, cocaine and hash.

His attorney told Haaretz Saturday he had not received any notification that his client was set to be released.  

An Israeli official said the prisoners' release was approved by the attorney general without a government decision. Israeli law dictates such a move go through the cabinet when stemming from diplomatic considerations.