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Israeli woman held in Syria lands in Tel Aviv following Russia-mediated deal

Woman who crossed into Syria through Quneitra a few weeks ago had been transferred to Russia over the past week
According to Syria's official Sana news agency, the woman had crossed over into Quneitra province by mistake (Reuters)

An Israeli woman who crossed into Syria a few weeks ago and was arrested by Syrian intelligence officers landed in Israel from Russia in the early hours of Friday, after a breakthrough in Russian-mediated negotiations between Israel and Damascus.

The woman was transferred to Russia over the past week, and a private Israeli plane left Tel Aviv on Thursday to retrieve her, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.

On Thursday, the Israeli military said it had sent back across the occupied Golan Heights armistice line two Syrian shepherds who had been detained in a security operation. 

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Israeli media said their return appeared to be part of a prisoner swap.

Syrian state media said two "prisoners" had been released.

The two were identified as residents of the Quneitra area, Mohammed Hussein and Tariq al-Ubaydan.

According to a preliminary investigation by the Israeli army, the woman crossed the border in an area of Quneitra that does not have a permanent fence and was arrested by Syrian authorities after entering a Druze village. 

She had previously attempted to enter the Gaza Strip but was stopped by the army, the military said, according to Haaretz.

According to Syria's official Sana news agency, the woman had crossed over into Quneitra province by mistake.

Israel media said the woman is 25-years old and from the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit in the occupied West Bank, however there was no confirmation of her identity from authorities

Netanyahu thanks 'friend' Putin

Haaretz reported that Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet, and Yaron Blum, who handles prisoner of war issues, had been in Russia negotiating the exchange.

The newspaper said during talks between Israel and Russia to secure the woman's release, Moscow had raised concerns about air strikes on convoys travelling from Iraq into Syria, saying that in some cases the convoys are transporting humanitarian aid, while Israel is convinced Iran is using them to smuggle weapons. 

The air strikes, Russia argued, were interfering with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to stabilise the situation in northeast Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday evening had held an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the "humanitarian" situation in Syria.

Russia has been a channel between Israel and Syria in recent years, due to its deep involvement in the war-torn country.

Thanking Russian leader Vladimir Putin after the deal, the Israeli PM said he had asked his "friend" to help "and he acted".

Illegal annexation

Netanyahu said his country had freed the two shepherds as a gesture of goodwill.

As part of the agreement, he said, a Syrian activist called Nihal al-Maqt, currently serving community service, would have her sentence shortened by three months.

On Thursday, it had been reported that Maqt and another Syrian prisoner, Dian Kahamuz, had refused to be transferred to Syria because they did not want to leave their hometowns in the Golan Heights. Kahamuz is currently serving time at an Israeli prison in the Negev desert.

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, later annexing it in a move never recognised by the international community.

The Syrians who live in the plateau are mostly Druze and the vast majority do not recognise Israel's sovereignty.