JERUSALEM (AP) — An American-Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt as a suspected spy flew to freedom in Israel and into his mother’s arms on Thursday after more than four months in jail, after a prisoner swap that has eased friction between the two countries.
A smiling Ilan Grapel, 27, looked fit after his one-hour flight from Cairo landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv. On the tarmac, his tearful mother, Irene, who had traveled to Israel from her home in the Queens borough of New York clasped him in her arms.
TV footage did not capture his comments, but the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, was heard telling him, “I’m very happy to see you here.”
Mr. Grapel was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
Egypt traded the U.S.-born Mr. Grapel for 25 Egyptians, most of them smugglers, held in Israeli jails. The Egyptian prisoners passed through a land crossing from Israel as Mr. Grapel prepared to take off for Israel. TV broadcasts showed some of the Egyptian men kneeling to kiss the asphalt after crossing through a blue metal gate at the border crossing.
Israel denied the espionage allegations against Mr. Grapel, as did his family and friends, and his release helped to ease fears that relations would sour after Egypt’s longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in February. Mr. Grapel was not charged.
Hours before the release, his 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,” the elder Mr. Grapel said in a telephone interview from New York. He said his son and wife would remain in Israel for at least two days to meet with Israeli and American officials before returning to the United States.
Initially, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had taken the lead in Mr. Grapel’s case because he had entered Egypt with his U.S. passport. A former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Eli Shaked, told Israel Radio that the U.S. was a main player in clinching the swap deal.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. “worked hard to bring (Mr. Grapel) home.” She added, “The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty is a vital element of regional peace and stability, and we strongly support both countries’ sustained commitment to its provisions.”
He made no secret of his Israeli background and entered Egypt under his real name, and his Facebook page had photos of him in an Israeli military uniform. Such openness about his identity suggested he was not a spy, and even in Egypt, where hostility toward Israel runs high, the arrest was widely ridiculed.
Mr. Grapel moved to Israel, where his grandparents live, as a young man. He did his compulsory military service in Israel during its 2006 war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and was wounded in the fighting. He later returned to the U.S. to study, and after his legal internship in Cairo, had planned to return to Emory University in Atlanta 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.
Israel Hasson, an Israeli lawmaker dispatched to Israel to escort Mr. Grapel from Egypt, said the Israeli government was willing to free prisoners to defuse the situation. “This event could have developed into a crisis, and we don’t think either country needs that,” Mr. Hasson told Israel Radio.