Egyptian prisoners leave Israeli jail for swap

October 27, 2011 - 9:25 AM
Mideast Egypt Israel

An Israeli soldier stands atop an observation tower on the Israeli side of the border line with Egypt, near to the town of Taba, in the south of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. An Exchange deal expected later Thursday between Egypt and Israel, to release US-Israeli national Ilan Grapel who was detained on suspicions of espionage since June 2011, for the release of 25 Egyptian prisoners held in Israel. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Twenty-five Egyptians left a jail in southern Israel on Thursday and were being bused to the border with Egypt ahead of a swap for a U.S.-Israeli citizen jailed in Cairo on suspicion of espionage.

The arrest of 27-year-old Ilan Grapel in Egypt in June set off new concerns in Israel that relations with the Egyptians would sour after the ouster of their longtime president, Hosni Mubarak. The swap deal was expected to help ease the strains that have developed between the two countries since Mubarak was toppled in February.

Grapel's father, Daniel Grapel, told The Associated Press that his son had been held in isolation in an unknown location and that when they last spoke two weeks ago, he seemed to be in "OK" condition and "getting fed."

"I am happy that this thing will be done and over with and that he will be able to resume his normal life away from Egypt," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Queens, N.Y.

Under a swap deal reached earlier this week, his U.S.-born son was to board a plane in Cairo later Thursday and fly to Israel. Daniel Grapel said his wife, Irene, flew to Tel Aviv to meet their son. They will remain in Israel for at least two days to meet with Israeli and American officials before returning to the U.S., he said.

Grapel was volunteering at a legal aid group in Cairo when he was arrested June 12 and accused of spying for Israel during the grass roots revolt that overthrew Mubarak. Israel denied the espionage allegations, as did Grapel's family and friends.

Grapel made no secret of his Israeli background and entered Egypt under his real name. His Facebook page had photos of him in an Israeli military uniform. Such openness about his identity suggested he was not a spy. The arrest was ridiculed even in Egypt, where hostility toward Israel runs high.

Grapel moved to Israel, where his grandparents live, as a young man. He did his compulsory military service in Israel during its 2006 war in Lebanon and was wounded in the fighting. He later returned to the U.S. to study.

At the time of his arrest he was doing a legal internship with a local nonprofit organization in Cairo and planned afterward to return to the U.S. for his final year of law school.

Some Israelis have criticized their government for making a deal to free a citizen arrested in a friendly nation on what they think were trumped-up allegations.

Since Mubarak was toppled, Egypt's military rulers have often warned against what they call "foreign" attempts to destabilize the country. And like other Arab states, Egypt has a long history of blaming internal problems on Israel.

Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty — the first between an Arab state and the Jewish one — in 1979. Relations have been cool since, but Mubarak could be relied on to uphold the pact.

While the military leaders that now rule Egypt have vowed to follow suit, they have unnerved Israel with overtures to Israel's enemy, the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza, a tiny patch of Palestinian territory that borders both countries.

Those improved ties appear to have helped Egypt finally broker a long-elusive prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas last week, in which Israel traded hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who had been held by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years.

Initially, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had taken the lead in Grapel's case because he entered Egypt with his U.S. passport. A former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Eli Shaked, said the U.S. was a main player in clinching the swap deal.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv had no comment on the affair.

A statement from U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman — a Democratic congressman from New York for whom Grapel interned in 2002 — said he had arrived Wednesday in Israel to bring home a constituent.

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AP correspondent Tia Goldenberg contributed to this report from Jerusalem.