JERUSALEM — Israel and Syria, long bitter foes, are engaged in Russian-mediated talks for a prisoner exchange after an Israeli woman recently crossed the frontier and was detained by the Syrian authorities, Syrian state media and Israeli officials said on Wednesday.
The unusual episode had been kept under wraps, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called an emergency meeting of his cabinet on Tuesday evening to discuss what was described as a sensitive humanitarian issue related to Syria.
The drama has since begun to unfold amid snippets of information and rumors. On Wednesday, SANA, the Syrian news agency, reported that Syria was working to liberate two of its citizens from Israeli detention, through Russian mediation, in exchange for the Israeli woman, who it said had entered Syrian territory in the Golan Heights region “by mistake.” The specifics of the woman’s identity were unclear.
Few details have been released, but Mr. Netanyahu, when asked about the episode in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio later Wednesday, said, “We are working to save a life.”
He said he would not comment on the news reports, but added, referencing Russia’s leader, “I can only tell you that I am using my personal connections with President Putin in order to solve this problem, and that we are in the midst of sensitive contacts, which cannot be discussed.”
The frontier between the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights and Syria has been tense in recent years and is heavily patrolled and guarded by Israeli forces. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and later effectively annexed the territory. While it would be difficult to slip over the frontier or cross it by accident, some parts are separated by a less forbidding fence than others.
The Syrian report named two detainees whose freedom Syria sought, Diab Qahmuz and Nihal Al-Maqt, and identified them as residents of the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. About 20,000 Syrian Druze Arabs live in villages in the Israeli-held territory. Many still identify as Syrians and have refused to take Israeli citizenship.
According to Israeli media reports, Mr. Qahmuz is from Ghajar, a contested village at a volatile juncture of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. He was convicted in 2018 and received a 14-year sentence for smuggling explosives into Israel from Lebanon on behalf of Hezbollah and for scouting out possible sites for a bomb attack.
Ms. Maqt, a resident of the Israeli-held Golan Heights, was convicted on charges of incitement, according to media reports, and was released from house arrest on Wednesday.
Mr. Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, have been in contact with Russian officials in recent days. Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser and his chief negotiator for the return of Israelis in enemy hands were reported to have traveled to Moscow for talks.
Russia has served in the past as a go-between for Israel and the Syrian government. In a good-will gesture in 2016, President Vladimir V. Putin agreed to return to Israel a tank that was seized during a disastrous 1982 battle with Syrian forces in southern Lebanon, an episode that left three Israeli soldiers missing in action and haunted Israel for decades.
In 2019, Moscow mediated the return of the remains of Sgt. First Class Zachary Baumel, an Israeli tank driver who was killed in that battle.
Israel Is in Talks to Free Woman Detained in Syria – The New York Times