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Israel secretly agrees to fund vaccines for Syria as part of prisoner exchange

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Jerusalem When a young Israeli woman was released from custody in Syria this week after being arrested for crossing into Syria illegally, the official story was that she had been the beneficiary of a direct prisoner exchange. In exchange for her freedom, the Israeli government announced, she had exchanged with two Syrian shepherds captured by the Israelis.

But if this agreement between two hostile states, which have never shared diplomatic relations, seemed too quick and easy, it would be. In secret, Israel had in fact also agreed on a much more controversial reward: funding an undisclosed number of coronavirus vaccines for Syria, according to an official familiar with the content of the negotiations.

Under the agreement, Israel will pay Russia, which mediated it, to send vaccines made by Russian Sputnik V to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the official said. Israel has given at least one vaccine to nearly half of its population of 9.2 million, while Syria is now entering its 11th year of civil war has not yet begun distributing vaccines.

The Israeli government declined to comment on the vaccine aspect of the deal, while a Syrian state-controlled media outlet, the Syrian News Agency, denied that the vaccines were part of the deal. Asked about the vaccines in a television interview Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoided the question, saying only that no Israeli vaccine was being sent to Syria.

Weve brought the woman, I am happy, said Mr. Netanyahu. He thanked Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and said, “I will not add.”

The agreement marks a rare moment of difficult co-operation between the two states that have waged several wars and still oppose the sovereignty of a part of the land, the Golan Heights, that Israel seized from Syria in 1967.

She also highlights how vaccines are increasingly a feature of international diplomacy. And it reflects a wide and growing inequality between rich countries like Israel, which have made considerable progress with coronavirus vaccines and may soon return to a kind of normalcy and poor ones, like Syria, that have not. .

Among the Palestinians, news reports about the Israel-Syria agreement have heightened frustration over the low number of vaccines provided by Israel to Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Israel has supplied only a few thousand vaccines to approximately 2.8 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, and last week the Israeli government briefly delayed the delivery of a first batch of vaccines to Gaza, home to nearly two million people.

Israel claims the Oslo Accords remove it from a responsibility to provide Palestinian health care. But rights activists and Palestinians mention the fourth Geneva Convention, which forces an occupying power to coordinate with local authorities to maintain public health within an occupied territory.

Israeli officials have said they must vaccinate their population before returning to the Palestinians. But the agreement on Syria sends another message, he said Khaled Elgindy, a scholar and former adviser to the Palestinian leadership.

Israel is ready to provide vaccines to Syrians outside their borders, but at the same time does not provide them to a large occupied population for which they are legally responsible, Elgindy said. This seems to be sending a message that they are deliberately trying to evade their legal responsibility to see the well-being of that occupied population.

Among Israelis, the prisoner exchange has raised concerns about how a civilian was able to cross the heavily policed ​​and tense border with Syria without being detected by Israeli authorities.

The woman, 23, crossed into Syria near Mount Hermon on February 2 without first being seen by Israeli or Syrian forces, the official said. Her name cannot currently be published, by court order.

Israel learned she was missing only when her friends notified police that she was missing. She entered Syrian detention only after a Syrian civilian who approached her realized she was Israeli and called police.

Israel then asked Russia for a Syrian ally with a strong military presence in the country for assistance in mediating its release. Russia and Israel have coordinated during similar episodes in the past. In 2016, Russia helped mediate the return of an Israeli tank captured by Syrian forces in 1982 to Lebanon. In 2019, Moscow facilitated the return of the body of an Israeli soldier killed during the same clash, Zachary Baumel.

The woman grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in a West Bank settlement and was told she had a history of trying to enter Israel’s Arab neighbors illegally once in Jordan, and once in Gaza. Both times, she was captured by Israeli forces, turned around, questioned, and warned not to do it again.

Israeli negotiators called for swift action to avoid a repeat of the crisis that followed the disappearance in Gaza of Avera Mengistu, a man with a history of mental illness who marched on tape in 2014 and has been held by Hamas, the militant group who often raises the price for its release.

Mr Netanyahu spoke twice directly with Mr Putin, while Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat communicated with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev.

The Syrians first demanded the release of two Syrian Golan Heights residents imprisoned in Israel, but that deal was broken after it emerged that the two did not want to return to Syria.

Israel then offered to release the two shepherds and at one point in the negotiations, the possibility of vaccines was raised.

The Israeli cabinet voted to accept the terms of the deal on Tuesday, the same day the 23-year-old was sent to Moscow. After further negotiations between Israeli and Russian officials, she returned to Israel on Thursday.

In Moscow, officials had offered no confirmation of such an arrangement until late Saturday, and Russian news media kept only reports citing Israeli publications.

But the Russian government has for months used its vaccine skillfully in Latin American diplomacy in the Middle East. Until Thursday, Mr. Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, suggested that Russia supply its Sputnik V vaccine to Syria in an interview with the Tass news agency.

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut and Carol Sutherland from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.

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