Israel will release two Syrians it holds prisoner following the return of the body of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel from Syria, an Israeli government official said Saturday.
The official confirmed comments from Russia's Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev, who claimed on Friday that Israel had agreed to release Syrian citizens in return for of Baumel's remains.
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 24
The Israeli official, however, said that the prisoners will be released as a gesture of "good will" after the remains of Baumel were retreived last month. Baumel was considered missing in Syria for 37 years.
The official denied that the release of the prisoners was agreed upon in advance and said that it was not part of a pre-conceived deal.
Later Saturday, a Syrian government source told Reuters that two or more Syrian hostages would be freed from Israeli prisons after Russian mediation.
The source said authorities had pressured Moscow to secure the prisoners’ release after the news of the Israeli soldier’s remains were being handed over.
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The prisoners that Israel will release are Zidan Tawil, arrested in 2008 for smuggling drugs, and Fatah operative Ahmad Khamis, arrested in 2005 for attempting to infiltrate into an Israeli military base and harm soldiers.
Tawil, born 1962, is from the town of Khader in Syria. He was arrested in July 2008 and was set to be released in July 2019. Khamis, born 1984, comes from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria. He was caught in April 2005 and was set to be released in 2023.
The 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.
However, the official said the case's circumstances permitted Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to sanction the release in the absence of a government decision, and added the prisoners' pardon was signed by President Reuven Rivlin.
The Justice Ministry responded later Saturday to accusations the matter had not been settled with the cabinet.
"Several days after the burial ceremony of Zachary Baumel, may his memory be a blessing, the attorney general was requested by government officials to make his opinion known about the possibility of releasing two Syrian prisoners who are held in Israel via a pardon by the president, as a gesture of good will."
According to the ministry, the "unique" circumstances Mendelblit faced led him to determine that "there is no legal reason not to act to release the prisoners in this manner."
A Palestinian source familiar with the process told Haaretz that apparently, the retrieval of Baumel's remains is part of a bigger diplomatic undertaking: "We are getting hints and information that there are more searches and further stages that we are not aware of their details, and that's why we have to wait before we say it's over."
The source was implying that Syrian and Russian forces are likely collaborating to search for other missing Israeli soldiers.
The parents of Capt. Hadar Goldin, who was killed in combat in Gaza in 2014 and whose body is still held by Hamas in Gaza, criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday, saying that the news of the prisoners' release "breaks our heart" since it shows that "Netanyahu once again dropped an opportunity to return" Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose body is also held by Hamas.
Baumel's body was retrieved by Russian forces from a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria earlier this month. He was was one of six soldiers who went missing in Lebanon on June 11, 1982, at the beginning of the First Lebanon War.
Speaking to the Russian state-funded RT news channel, Alexander Lavrentyev said on Friday that returning Baumel was first and foremost "a humanistic gesture," but added Israel agreed to release the Syrians in return for Baumel's body.
"When the opportunity arose to transfer the body of the Israeli soldier – we decided to do it. We thank the Syrians for their cooperation." Lavrentyev, who gave the interview in Arabic, added he hopes Arab nations would realize the meaning of the move.
The body's retrieval "paid off for Syria in the end," Lavrentyev said, adding that Russia "would never act in way that contradicts Syria's interests."
Earlier this month, Syria denied cooperating with Russia to retrieve Baumel's remains. Also, while briefing reporters in Moscow on the day Baumel's body was returned, a senior official said Israel "paid no diplomatic price" for it.
Up until the return of Baumel's body, the fate of the three soldiers who had remained missing following the Sultan Yaaqub battle was unclear, and they were believed to have been held by Palestinian organizations in Syria. The Israeli army had considered announcing their deaths, but hadn't done so eventually.
Baumel's father, Yonah, who passed away in 2009, said he was convinced his son was still alive.
Reuters contributed to this report.