Reports claim that Israel has agreed to purchase an unknown number of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine doses for use in Syria as part of the deal for the return of an Israeli woman held by the Syrian regime. The woman had apparently crossed the border into Syria two weeks ago, and was detained by local authorities. Since then, she has returned to Israel, in an elaborate Russia-mediated deal. She arrived to Israel via Moscow on Friday, Feb. 19. Netanyahu thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for facilitating the deal, without entering into details.
It is now known that the woman crossed the border into Syria overnight Feb. 2, entering the Druze village of Khader, where she was apprehended on suspicion of being a spy and handed over to Syrian intelligence. It seems that the Syrian authorities quickly realized she was not a spy, but simply an Israeli civilian with personal issues. Reportedly, she had posted on her Facebook account a hint over her intention to cross the border, stating “No fence will stop me.”
Israel Defense Forces censor had allowed for the publication of parts of the mediated deal. For instance, Israeli media was allowed to report the release of two Syrian shepherds on Feb. 18. The two were arrested a few weeks ago when they crossed the border into Israel. Also, the press was allowed to publish Israel’s agreement to shorten the sentence of Nahal al-Makat, resident of the Druze Golan Heights village of Majdal Shamsh who was given a three-year suspended sentence last June. Still, the military censor barred the publication of other details of the deal.
Military censorship does not apply to Knesset members, Thus, on the same day the Israeli woman was released, Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi tweeted, “Last week I raised in the Knesset a demand to allow the entrance of thousands of vaccines to Gaza and to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank from the large inventory that Israel has (which is the responsibility of an occupying force). Must we wait for a Jewish woman to cross into Gaza so that [Palestinians] could get a vaccine?” Since then, Tibi had denied his tweet had anything to do with Syria and Russia. Still, it was perceived in Israel as a hint that the deal was related to vaccine doses.
A report in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat Feb. 20 claimed Israel is funding the purchase of Sputnik V doses for Damascus as part of the prisoner exchange deal with the Syrian regime.
Al Jazeera cited an unnamed Israeli source who claimed, “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz, knowing the possible electoral damage to both of them, ordered the military censor to prohibit publishing that Israel agreed to finance purchasing Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses for millions of Syrian citizens. The exact price was not disclosed to the cabinet, but it’s millions of dollars.”
Some Israeli publications claim that it was not Jerusalem, but Moscow, that insisted to keep the vaccine-dose-clause secret.