JERUSALEM – When a young Israeli woman was released from detention in Syria this week, after being arrested for illegally crossing into Syria, the official story was that she was the beneficiary of a straight prisoner swap. In exchange for his freedom, the Israeli government announced, he was captured by Israel for two Syrian shepherds.
But if this deal between two enemy states, which have never shared diplomatic relations, seemed too fast and easy, it was. Secretly, Israel had actually agreed to a more controversial ransom: financing an undisclosed number of coronaviruses for Syria, according to an official familiar with the content of the talks.
Under the deal, Israel will pay Russia, who, while mediating, sent Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines under the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israel has given at least one vaccine shot to half its population of 9.2 million, while Syria – now entering the 11th year of its civil war – has yet to begin its vaccine rollout.
The Israeli government declined to comment on the vaccine aspect of the deal, while the Syrian Arab News Agency, a Syrian state-controlled news outlet, denied that the vaccines were part of the system. When asked about the vaccines in a television interview on Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deferred the question by saying that only one of Israel’s vaccines is not being sent to Syria.
“We brought the woman, I’m glad,” Mr. Netanyahu said. He Russian President Vladimir V. Thanked Putin and said, “I won’t add more.”
The deal is a rare moment of uneasy cooperation between the two states, with several wars fought and still sovereignty of a tract of land, the Golan Heights, that Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
It also sheds light on how vaccines are becoming a feature of international diplomacy. And it illustrates a huge and growing disparity between wealthy states like Israel, which has been in quite the limelight with coronovirus vaccines and may soon return to some sort of normality – and the poor like Syria, which did not. Huh.
Among Palestinians, news reports about the Israel-Syria deal have increased frustration about the low number of vaccines provided by Israel to Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Israel has supplied only a few thousand vaccines to the approximately 2.8 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, and last week the Israeli government delayed delivery of the first batch of vaccines from Gaza, where about 20 million people live.
Israel says the Oslo Accord absolved it of the responsibility to provide for Palestinian health care. But rights campaigners and Palestinians cited the fourth Geneva Convention, Which binds an occupying power to coordinate with local authorities to maintain public health within an authorized area.
Israeli officials have said that they must get their population vaccinated before turning to Palestinians. But Syria deal sends a different message, said Khalid Elgindi, A researcher and former consultant to Palestinian leadership.
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“Israel is ready to provide vaccines to Syrians outside its borders, but at the same time does not provide them with a vast occupied population that they are legally responsible for,” Mr. Elgindi said. “It seems that they are sending a message that they are deliberately trying to evade their legal responsibility so that the welfare of that captured population is taken care of.”
Among the Israelis, prisoner swaps have raised concerns over how a civilian was able to cross the highly polished and tense border with Syria undetermined by Israeli authorities.
On February 2, a 23-year-old woman was officially crossed into Syria near Mount Hermon without being officially fired by Israel or the Syrian Army. His name cannot currently be published by court order.
Israel finds out that she had gone missing when her friends informed the police that she was missing. She It was only after a Syrian citizen came into Syrian custody that he made him realize that he was Israeli and called the police.
Israel then asked Russia – a Syrian ally with a strong military presence in the country – to help mediate her release. Russia and Israel have coordinated during similar episodes in the past. In 2016, Russia helped mediate the withdrawal of an Israeli tank seized by Syrian forces in 1982 in Lebanon. In 2019, Moscow facilitated the return of the body of an Israeli soldier killed during the same conflict, Zachary Bommel.
The woman was raised in a settlement in the West Bank in an ultra-Orthodox family, and was said to have illegally attempted to enter Israel’s Arab neighbors – once in Jordan, and once in Gaza. Both times, he was arrested by Israeli forces, returned, questioned and warned not to do so again.
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Israeli negotiators sought to act quickly to avoid a recurrence of the impending crisis following Evera Mengistu’s disappearance in Gaza, a man with a history of mental illness who marched across the strip in 2014 and Hamas, following the terrorist Ever held from. The group, which often raises the price for his release.
Mr. Netanyahu spoke directly with Mr. Putin twice, while Israel’s national security adviser, Mir Ben-Shabbat, communicated with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Petrushev.
The Syrians first demanded the release of the two Syrian residents of the Golan Heights imprisoned in Israel, but the arrangement broke down after the two expressed no desire to return to Syria.
Israel then offered the release of the two shepherds, and at some points in negotiations, the possibility of vaccines was increased.
The Israeli cabinet voted Tuesday to agree to the terms of the deal, the same day the 23-year-old flew to Moscow. After further negotiations between Israeli and Russian officials, she returned to Israel on Thursday.
In Moscow, officials had made no confirmation of such an arrangement until late Saturday, and the Russian news media reported citing Israeli publications only.
But the Russian government has deliberately used its vaccine in diplomacy from Latin America to the Middle East for months. As recently as Thursday, Mr. Putin’s special envoy in Syria, Alexander Laveritiv, suggested that Russia would supply its Sputnik V vaccine to Syria in an interview with the Tass news agency.
Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv and Andrew E. from Moscow. Reported to Kramer. Hveda Saad contributed reporting from Beerut and Carol Sutherland to Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.