Israel Secretly Agrees to Fund Vaccines for Syria as A part of Prisoner Swap
JERUSALEM – When a young Israeli woman was released from custody in Syria this week after being arrested for illegally entering Syria, the official story was that she had benefited from a simple prisoner swap. In return for her freedom, the Israeli government announced that she had been exchanged for two Syrian shepherds captured by the Israelis.
But if this deal between two hostile states that have never shared diplomatic relations sounded too quick and easy, it was. In fact, Israel had secretly agreed to a far more controversial ransom: the financing of an undisclosed number of coronavirus vaccines for Syria, according to an official familiar with the content of the negotiations.
Under the deal, Israel will pay Russia, which it brokered, to send Russia-made Sputnik-V vaccines to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of Syria, the official said. Israel has given at least one vaccine to at least half of its 9.2 million population, while Syria – now entering its eleventh year of civil war – has not yet started introducing the vaccine.
The Israeli government declined to comment on the vaccination aspect of the deal, while a state-controlled Syrian news agency, the Syrian Arab News Agency, denied that vaccines were part of the deal. When asked about the vaccines in a television interview on Saturday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escaped the question and said only that no Israeli vaccines would be sent to Syria.
“We brought the woman, I’m glad,” said Mr. Netanyahu. He thanked Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and said: “I will not add more.”
The agreement is a rare moment of unsettled cooperation between two states that have waged multiple wars and still contest the sovereignty of a stretch of land, the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered from Syria in 1967.
It also highlights how vaccines are increasingly a feature of international diplomacy. And it reflects a great and growing inequality between wealthy states like Israel, which have made considerable strides with coronavirus vaccines and may soon return to some sort of normalcy – and poor ones like Syria, which haven’t.
Among the Palestinians, news reports about the Israel-Syria agreement have increased frustration at the low number of vaccines Israel is providing to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Israel has only delivered a few thousand vaccines to the roughly 2.8 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and last week the Israeli government briefly delayed the delivery of a first batch of vaccines to Gaza, where nearly two million people live.
Israel claims that the Oslo Accords release it from its responsibility to provide Palestinian health care. But human rights activists and Palestinians cite the fourth Geneva Convention, which obliges an occupying power to coordinate with local authorities to maintain public health in an occupied area.
Israeli officials have said they must vaccinate their own people before turning to the Palestinians. But the Syria deal sends a different message, said Khaled Elgindy, a researcher and former advisor to the Palestinian leadership.
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“Israel stands ready to provide vaccines to Syrians outside of their borders, but at the same time is not making them available to an enormous occupied population for which they are legally responsible,” Elgindy said. “That seems to be a message that they are deliberately trying to evade their legal responsibility for the well-being of this occupied population.”
Among Israelis, the prisoner swap has raised concerns about how a civilian was able to cross the heavily police and tense border with Syria, undiscovered by the Israeli authorities.
The 23-year-old woman traveled to Syria near Mount Hermon on February 2 without being detected by Israeli or Syrian forces. Your name cannot currently be published by court order.
Israel learned she was missing until her friends told the police that she was missing. She only entered Syrian custody after a Syrian civilian who approached her realized she was Israeli and called the police.
Israel then asked Russia – a Syrian ally with a strong military presence in the country – to help mediate its release. Russia and Israel have coordinated in similar episodes in the past. In 2016, Russia helped broker the return of an Israeli tank that was seized by Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1982. In 2019, Moscow facilitated the return of the body of an Israeli soldier, Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the same clash.
The woman grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in a settlement in the West Bank and is said to have tried in the past to illegally enter Israel’s Arab neighbors – once in Jordan and once in Gaza. On both occasions she was arrested, brought back, questioned and warned by Israeli forces.
Israeli negotiators tried to act quickly to avoid a recurrence of the crisis that followed the disappearance of Avera Mengistu in the Gaza Strip, a man with a history of mental illness who marched into the strip in 2014 and has since been held by militant Hamas becomes a group that often increases the price of his release.
Mr Netanyahu spoke directly to Mr Putin twice, while Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat communicated with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev.
The Syrians initially demanded the release of two Syrian residents of the Golan Heights imprisoned in Israel, but that agreement collapsed after it became apparent that the two did not want to return to Syria.
Israel then offered the release of the two shepherds and at some point in negotiations the possibility of vaccines was raised.
The Israeli cabinet approved the terms of the deal on Tuesday, the day the 23-year-old was flown to Moscow. After further negotiations between Israeli and Russian officials, she was returned to Israel on Thursday.
In Moscow, officials had not offered confirmation of such an agreement by late Saturday, and the Russian news media reported only citing Israeli publications.
But the Russian government has been using its vaccine skillfully for months in diplomacy from Latin America to the Middle East. On Thursday, Putin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, suggested in an interview with the Tass news agency that Russia would deliver its Sputnik-V vaccine to Syria.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow. Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut and Carol Sutherland from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.