- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

EILAT, Israel — Egypt yesterday freed an Israeli Arab man convicted of spying in exchange for Israel’s release of six Egyptian students, a swap that signaled a warming of relations that had been severely strained by the four-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Israel may also release some Palestinian prisoners in the future, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said.

Egypt released Azzam Azzam, who was sentenced in 1997 to 15 years in prison after an Egyptian court convicted him of espionage. At the time, Mr. Azzam ran a textile factory in Egypt, and Israel has denied he was an agent.

The case against Mr. Azzam was based, in part, on a pair of women’s undergarments soaked in invisible ink purportedly found in Mr. Azzam’s suitcase. Egyptian officials accused him of giving the undergarments to an Egyptian accomplice, who used the invisible ink to pass Israel information on Egyptian factories.

Israel, in turn, released six Egyptian students who had sneaked into the country in August and were arrested on suspicion they tried to kidnap Israeli soldiers and commandeer a tank.

Mr. Azzam’s imprisonment has been a point of friction between Israel and Egypt, whose ties remain cool despite their 1979 peace treaty, and the students’ arrest had angered many in Egypt.

The transfer took place at the Taba crossing between Israel and Egypt. After Mr. Azzam crossed into Israel in a van, he was taken to a nearby airport at the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Several hours later, he boarded a small military aircraft, smiling and waving before takeoff.

Asked whether he had expected he would win early release, he said: “I always believed, because I am an Israeli citizen. I believed, because the state of Israel takes care of its citizens.”

Egypt’s semiofficial Middle East News Agency reported that Mr. Azzam, 42, was released for his “good behavior and discipline,” quoting an unidentified political analyst.

Upon news of Mr. Azzam’s release, his family — members of the Druse religious sect, an offshoot of Islam — erupted in cheers, tears and applause at their home in the northern Israeli town of Mughar.

The party began well before his expected arrival last night. Female relatives passed around a giant tray of traditional Arab sweets, set up a sound system and began dancing, while the men cut down a fence and trees in the yard to build a stage for singers to perform.

Mr. Azzam was expected to undergo a medical check before returning home. A father of four, he was the director of a textile factory under joint Israeli-Egyptian ownership when he was arrested in November 1996. An Egyptian teacher convicted as his accomplice was jailed for life with hard labor.

The swap came several days after Egypt’s foreign minister and intelligence chief met with Mr. Sharon in Jerusalem. Also last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Palestinians should be able to strike a peace deal with the Israeli leader.

Mr. Mubarak’s comments marked a significant warming of ties after an extended frosty period during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Shortly after the outbreak of the conflict in 2000, Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Israel.

However, Egypt expects to play a major role in Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Last week, Egypt and Israel agreed on deploying 750 Egyptian troops on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza and on Palestinian security officials being sent to Egypt for training.

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