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Israel sends prisoners back to Syria through Golan after recovering soldier's body

Both Syrian prisoners, who Israeli official says were freed in 'goodwill gesture,' reportedly asked not be taken back home
Some media reported that the Israeli attorney general sanctioned the prisoners' release without cabinet approval (AFP/SANA)

Two Syrian prisoners released by Israel have been taken back to Syria through the Quneitra crossing in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in what Damascus described as Russian-mediated reciprocation for the repatriation of the body of a long-missing Israeli soldier.

The prisoners had been transferred to the Red Cross and then taken to Syria, Israel's military confirmed on Sunday. 

Israel's prison service (IPS) said the prisoners were Zidan Tawil, who was convicted of drug trafficking and was due to be freed in July, and Khamis Ahmed.

The IPS said Ahmed is a Fatah member from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria who was originally due to be freed in 2023 after he attempted to attack an Israeli army base in 2005.

Both prisoners had allegedly requested to not be sent back to Syria, according to Israeli media outlets. 

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Ahmed wished to be sent to the Palestinian city of Hebron, where he is supposed to marry his partner, while Tawil feared he would face persecution by the Syrian authorities. 

An Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said on Saturday that Israel agreed to release the prisoners as a "goodwill gesture" after the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel earlier this month.

The decision was not part of a pre-arranged deal, the official said.

But there were signs of a brewing controversy in Israel as some media reported that the attorney general sanctioned the prisoners' release without cabinet approval.

Pre-election repatriation

Israel's military announced on 3 April that Baumel's remains, missing since the 1982 Lebanon war, had been returned, bringing to a close a highly sensitive case for Israelis.

The announcement came less than a week before hotly contested Israeli elections, which saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a fifth term in office.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a visit by Netanyahu that the remains had been found by the Russian and Syrian armies, in a context where Moscow has a military presence in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. 

But Syrian Information Minister Imad Sara said on 4 April that Damascus had no knowledge of plans to repatriate the remains, nor was it aware of the details behind the discovery of the body and its subsequent transfer.

Israeli soldiers fought against Syrian forces in a battle on June 10-11, 1982 in the Lebanese village of Sultan Yacoub, near the Syrian border.

Some 20 Israeli soldiers were killed.

Baumel and two other soldiers, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, had since been listed as missing and presumed killed. The latter two remain missing.