| 28 February 2024, Wednesday |

Israel agrees to buy thousands of COVID-19 vaccines for Syria in secret deal

Israel has agreed to purchase hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines for transfer to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in exchange for a woman’s release, foreign reports said on Saturday.

The Russian-made coronavirus vaccines will be given to Syria, the reports said. The pledge to purchase the vaccines appeared in a secret clause of a deal with the Assad regime to release an Israeli who crossed the border.

The young woman returned on a private flight from Russia early on Friday, after being taken there from Syria sometime in the past week. The agreement between Jerusalem and Moscow to secure her release contained a pledge that the vaccine transfer would remain secret.

In exchange for her return, Israel nullified the sentence of a Druze woman from the Golan Heights who was ordered to perform community service and repatriated 2 shepherds to Syria.

Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi seemed he was hinting to reports about the deal on Twitter Friday, and called for sending vaccine shots to the Gaza Strip also.

“Must we wait for a Jew to cross the border into Gaza for us to get vaccinated?” Tibi said on Twitter. “There is another way. It’s international law and it’s humane. This is the same, continuous epidemiological region,” he added.

Foreign reports say the woman, who crossed the border on February 2, is a resident of the religious West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit. Based on initial investigations, it turns out that she arrived at the village of Majdal Shams, on the Israeli side of the border, in the evening before walking north toward Mount Hermon. The area lacks a permanent border fence, and she succeeded in crossing into Syrian territory at a point that was not monitored by military security cameras.

After crossing into Syria, she arrived at the Druze village of Hader, where she was caught by the Syrian intelligence forces. Upon interrogation, Syrian officers concluded she was not a spy and contacted Israel through Russia in order to start negotiating her return.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was engaged in talks to secure the woman’s return from the beginning, as were Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who spoke with their counterparts in Russia.

Justice Ministry officials and other relevant officials were only notified of the matter on Tuesday, during an extraordinary cabinet meeting. Talks about the conditions of the deal therefore kicked off on Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday, Syrian state media said the Israeli woman had entered Syrian territory through the Quneitra crossing and was detained by authorities. National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and the coordinator for POWs and MIAs, Yaron Blum, traveled to Russia to hold negotiations with Syria.