When Israelis see Yaron Blum on the evening news, they know: now it’s a matter of life and death. He is a familiar face, which is less due to his imposing mustache and rimless glasses with the red temples than to his job.
Yaron Blum is the coordinator for prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. When the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiates the fate of soldiers with his enemies, Yaron Blum has been officially there since 2017.
The 62-year-old previously worked for the domestic secret service Schin Bet for a long time. He negotiated with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas about the release of Gilad Shalit until he came back alive from captivity in the Gaza Strip in 2011. In return, more than 1,000 Palestinians were released from Israeli prisons. The case made headlines around the world at the time.
Israel’s prisoner exchange operations have often had a slightly macabre note. Because: when Israel negotiated an exchange with its mortal enemies from the Lebanese Hezbollah or Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it was by no means just about prisoners. It is Israel’s principle to bring back abducted people at all costs, no matter when, no matter how much of them was or is left. The Islamist militias, for example, traded bones, frozen limbs and personal items far more often than living Israeli hostages.
A small exchange of prisoners, many big losers
Nevertheless, the handovers, which were always attended with great aplomb, were a political success for everyone involved. Now a comparatively small transfer – two Syrian shepherds against a civilian from Israel – has grown into an affair that is gradually battering everyone involved. The protagonists of this geopolitical tragic comedy: Russia, the Syrian Assad regime, Benjamin Netanyahu – and the Palestinians.
Actually, everything started relatively harmless: on Friday morning last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that a young Israeli woman had been released from captivity in Syria – in exchange for two Syrian shepherds who had been captured on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Russian government mediated that Yaron Blum was involved in the negotiations. In the end, a special aircraft operated by the Israeli government picked up the young woman. That could have told the story.
Dangerous hike into enemy territory at midnight
But the case of the young woman caused a stir, the Israeli public puzzled: What was it that drove the mid-twenties, whose name is not publicly disclosed by court order, from her strictly religious hometown Modi’in Illit to hostile territory?
On the evening of February 2, she took the public intercity bus to the border town of Madschdal Schams, where the religious minority of the Druze lives. From there she probably hiked to a steep section of the nearby Hermon Mountain, which is otherwise only used by goats, and finally crossed the border, which is secured with steel fences elsewhere and almost everywhere with minefields. The Israeli army published the results of the investigation report on Monday evening. Conclusion: The young woman knew the area and had probably spied it out before.
The actual crossing of the border around midnight – a life-threatening undertaking. And, as it soon turned out, it was already her fourth attempt to overcome Israel’s hermetically secured external borders: to get out, not in, against which the security systems are actually intended.
She had tried twice before to get to Gaza, allegedly once on a self-built raft. Then she wanted to break through to Jordan. She finally succeeded in Syria.
Just why all this?
The repertoire of strictly religious people does not include illegal border crossings, especially not for unmarried young daughters. Her Facebook profile and other facets add to the image of a woman who dreams of a borderless Middle East and is driven by wanderlust. Before and immediately after the founding of Israel in 1948, such trips were particularly popular among left-wing kibbutzniks. Those who returned from desert trips to enemy territory, often lasting days, became living legends and their adventures became pop hits. But that was half a century ago.
This year the young woman only made it to the first village, where she was arrested.
Better in Israeli jail than in Assad’s hands
Syria immediately turned to its protecting power, Russia, to negotiate an exchange with Moscow’s help. The curious: Diab Kahmuz and Nihal al-Malka, the original exchange candidates who were supposed to be returned to the Syrians, did not want to. They ruined the myth of Hezbollah’s self-sacrificing resistance fighters. Diab Kahmuz from an Alawi village near the Israeli border with Lebanon was caught five years ago trying to smuggle explosives into the country for Hezbollah. The Golan Heights Druze Nihal al-Malka was arrested as a middleman. Now they were to be brought to Damascus as free men.
But they didn’t want to, Kahmuz definitely not, Malka has different statements. Apparently they prefer to stay in heated cells with hot meals in the Israeli prison. So the lot fell on the two shepherds, who at least were willing to return voluntarily.
$ 1.2 million for 50,000 doses of vaccine
Then it also came out that Moscow had had its mediation paid for with a spicy additional deal for 1.2 million dollars: For this sum, Israel is buying the Russian corona vaccine Sputnik V, enough doses for around 50,000 people. Delivery address: Damascus. That now called the Palestinians on the scene, from whom Israel has so far largely withheld vaccinations, while it is the world leader in vaccinating its own population.
Ahmad Tibi, for example wrote on Twitter: “Do we have to wait for a Jew to cross the border into the Gaza Strip, for the Palestinians there to be vaccinated?” Tibi is a prominent Arab politician who sits in the Israeli Knesset. He canceled his tweet the day the young Israeli returned from Russia.
In normal times, the hostage exchange between Israel and Syria would be a brilliant success for Netanyahu. He could have maintained his image as a world politician. But the envisaged victory on points in foreign policy is now turning into a domestic problem for him. The debate over how Israel is treating the Palestinians on the vaccine issue will not simply go away.
There is an election campaign in Israel. Hamas in the Gaza Strip will also have followed the deal closely. She is currently holding two living Israeli civilians prisoner and the bodies of two soldiers. The vaccine deal with Syria will pursue Netanyahu in negotiations with the Palestinian terrorist group, the daily newspaper »Haaretz« predicts.
Israel’s government probably wanted to keep the vaccine deal a secret, Moscow denied it, because it is embarrassing for Russia too: On Thursday, Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, patronizingly indicated in an interview that the vaccine would be delivered to his loyal ally Syria will. He said nothing about the fact that this would only be done against prepayment and then from Israeli sources.
“All the oligarchs, the militia chiefs, secret service generals who can no longer travel abroad at all will have themselves, their families, their henchmen vaccinated.”
However, it confirmed the Syrians’ repeated impression that nothing could be gotten from Russia for free. Even in the upper class of Damascus, nothing is known about the arrival of the vaccination doses.
But even if the vaccine was delivered, a businessman in Syria’s capital suspected on Monday evening, only a very special group would benefit: “All the oligarchs, the militia chiefs, intelligence generals who can no longer travel abroad at all, will themselves, their families, get their minions vaccinated. ”Only then will Sputnik V end up on the black market. The idea that old people and people with previous illnesses should be vaccinated first is only answered with a hoarse laugh.