Israel to Release Two Prisoners, Among Them a Druze Who Spied for Syria

Israel announced Thursday night that it will release a Druze man jailed in the country who had been convicted of spying on Syria's behalf. 

The decision to release Sidqi al-Maqt, a resident of the northern village of Majdal Shmas, was made "in accordance with a government decision and in coordination with the Israel Defense Forces," the Israel Prison Service stated. Al-Maqt was sentenced in 2017 to 14 years in prison for security offenses, including spying and contacting a foreign agent. 

Israel will also release a man identified as Amal Abu Salah, who was convicted of killing a Syrian citizen. He, too, hails from Majdal Shams.

A statement released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau said that the prisoners were being released as a "political gesture of goodwill" following the return of the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel. Baumel was one of six Israeli soldiers who went missing after the Sultan Yaaqub battle in Lebanon in 1982. Last year, his remains were returned to Israel after an operation by Russian and Syrian soldiers in Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. 

The government had approved the release of al-Maqt and Abu Salah in December, but since both insisted on returning to the Golan Heights rather than going to Damascus, the government had to amend its decision. The details of the case were not made public. 

In November, Palestinians told Haaretz that Russia had advanced the release of al-Maqt in talks with Israel. Sources familiar with the talks told Haaretz at the time that the Russian military attache met with al-Maqt in jail and told him that he could be freed if he agrees not to return to the Golan Heights, and instead move to Damascus. 

This is the second time al-Maqt is jailed for security offenses. In 2012, he ended a 27-year sentence and was rearrested three years later after he filmed the transfer of people wounded from battle in Syria to Israel for a report that was aired on Syrian television.