Israel repatriated on Thursday two Syrian shepherds who crossed into Israel a few weeks ago, in a sign of progress in Russian-mediated negotiations between the two neighboring countries for the release of an Israeli woman captured in Syria.
The woman was transferred to Russia over the past week, and a private Israeli plane left Tel Aviv on Thursday to retrieve her.
The Israel Defense Forces' spokesman said the two Syrian nationals were handed over to the Red Cross at the Quneitra border crossing on the Golan Heights. The military added the shepherds' return was at the order of Israel's political leadership.
Syrian state media, citing "informed sources," confirmed two "prisoners" were released. The two were identified as residents of the Quneitra area, Mohammed Hussein and Tariq al-Ubaydan.
Shepherds crossing the border into Israel from Syria and Lebanon have been troubling the Israeli army's Northern Command for years. Hezbollah, officials say, uses the shepherds to surveil IDF forces posted near the border, sometimes for payment.
In recent months the army has detected increasing incidents of Hezbollah operatives masquerading as shepherds to gather intelligence and try to carry out attacks near the border.
The shepherds who were returned to Syria on Thursday had been arrested earlier this month after crossing the Israeli border, on suspicion of being sent by Hezbollah. A month ago Israel arrested another shepherd who had crossed the border from Lebanon on a similar suspicion.
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On Wednesday, Syrian state media reported that an Israeli woman entered Syrian territory through the Quneitra crossing and was arrested by authorities. National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and the coordinator for POWs and MIAs, Yaron Blum, flew to Russia to continue negotiations with Syria, which Moscow is mediating.
According to an initial report by the Northern Command, the woman first arrived in Majdal Shams, the largest Druze town in the Golan Heights, and later, in the evening hours, walked north toward Mount Hermon.
The woman managed to cross into Syria because that part of the frontier lacks a contiguous border fence. She appeared to have used a path concealed from the Israeli army's observation posts.
She reached the entrance to the Druze village of Hader, located on the Syrian side, where she was arrested by Syrian authorities.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with Israel Army radio that he is "working to save her life."
"I am using my connections with Russian President Putin to fix this," Netanyahu said.
Foreign sources have told Haaretz that the woman is from the religious West Bank settlement of Modi'in Illit.
The Syrian media has quoted sources who said that Syria demanded the release of two prisoners, Diab Kahamuz and Nihal al-Maqt, in exchange for the Israeli woman, but Thursday's report made no mention of Kahamuz's potential release.
Kahamuz, 34, received a 14-year sentence in 2018 for smuggling explosives he received from Hezbollah into Israel from Lebanon and choosing possible sites in northern Israel for carrying out a terror attack with explosives. He is a resident of Ghajar, an Israeli Arab village on the with border Lebanon.
He was convicted of aiding the enemy in wartime and of contact with a foreign agent, but acquitted of espionage and providing information to the enemy. He was also fined 120,000 shekels ($34,500).
Additionally, the Palestinian Prisoners Club released a statement that says the Israeli Prison Service has decided to release Kahamuz to Syria according to the agreement that as formed between Israel and Syria brokered by Russia.
Kahamuz was released Wednesday from his wing at Ketziot Prison, after a decision was made regarding his release, according to Palestinian sources. However, he refused to be released to Damascus, and was subsequently returned to the wing, and is awaiting developments.
According to the source, advancement regarding his release may be made if Syria moves to allow the transfer of the remains of fallen IDF soldiers from the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon in June, 1982.
Russia has been a channel between Israel and the Assad administration in recent years, due to its deep involvement in Syria. About two years ago, Moscow mediated the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an IDF soldier who was killed in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub. His remains were transferred from Syria to Russia a few days before arriving in Israel in April 2019.