Israel released two Syrian prisoners in return for the remains and personal effects of First Sergeant Zachary Baumel, killed in action in 1982, last Sunday.
Russia mediated the release, pressing Israel to agree the ‘goodwill gesture’ with Syrian President Bashar Assad. And Israel might release more prisoners for fallen soldiers according to some media sources.
Justice Ministry and President Reuven Rivlin granted Ahmed Khamis and Zidan Taweel a pardon to facilitate the deal.
Khamis, from a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, and Taweel, from Syrian Druze village of Hader were named by Israel’s Prisons Service.
Fatah member Khamis, due to be released in 2023, was jailed after attempting to attack an Israeli army base in 2005, Taweel, set to be released in July, was jailed for drug smuggling in 2008.
Both were transferred to the Red Cross at the Syrian border town of Quneitra according to an Israeli military statement.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.
And there was no comment from Syrian or Russian authorities.
But Israel minister for regional cooperation, Tzachi Hanegbi, noted the release did not constitute a swap with Syria but hoped it will help the recovery of other Israelis lost to Syrians in past wars.
“If with a gesture like this we leave the Syrians with less of a sour taste, then that is a positive thing,” he reportedly told Israel’s Army Radio.
Baumel was laid to rest at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem earlier this month.
Netanyahu and Rivlin together with high-profile Israeli officials joined family members at his funeral.
Baumel’s body was returned to Israel and identified at Abu Kabir Forensics Institute in Tel Aviv after years of “significant intelligence operations.”
His partial remains, army overalls and tzitzit arrived in Israel on an El Al plane after Russian troops located them in a Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, in Syria.
Netanyahu thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin Putin for helping in the search.
Brooklyn-born Baumel was among six soldiers, including Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who went missing in action during a tank battle with Syrian troops at the Lebanese village of Sultan Yacoub close to the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Baumel was believed to have been captured by enemy forces.
The Battle of Sultan Yacoub took place on the sixth day of the First Lebanon War, known in Israel is Operation Peace for Galilee.
Israel suffered 20 confirmed losses in the battle, as well as dozens of wounded.
The fates of other soldiers were later discovered.
Operation Bittersweet Song began two years ago for the families of Baumel, Katz and Feldman.
In June 2016, Russia repatriated the IDF tank the three soldiers were killed in from Moscow’s Kubinka Tank Museum.
In a televised statement, Netanyahu said the operation was the ultimate expression of the mutual responsibility and comradeship that characterise Israel as a nation, as an army and as a country.
By Howard Lawrence