Last updated: 27 October, 2011

Egypt to free “Israeli spy” in prisoner swap

A US-Israeli citizen expressed gratitude to Egyptian officials Thursday night for the good treatment he received in their prison, hours after returning to Israel as part of a prisoner exchange deal.

Ilan Grapel was speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, having already thanked the Israelis and Americans who secured his release from the Egyptian prison.

“I have to also thank the Egyptian authorities that treated me respectfully, according to the tenets of their religion, made sure that I was fed well, respected me and made sure that no one harmed me,” he said.

Grapel, who had been held in custody since June after being accused of spying, was freed under a prisoner-exchange deal that saw Israel release 25 Egyptian detainees.

Grapel touched down at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport at around 1630 GMT on a private plane from Cairo, accompanied by Israeli officials.

He was warmly received by his mother Irene and US Congressman Gary Ackerman, who was involved in the efforts to release Grapel. Then all three were whisked away to Jerusalem for a brief meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Grapel arrived in Israel shortly after 25 Egyptians imprisoned in the Jewish state for a range of criminal offences were transferred via the Taba border crossing to Sinai, where they received a hero’s welcome.

He was accompanied from Cairo by Israeli lawmaker Israel Hasson, who spoke to Israeli public radio from Cairo shortly after receiving the US-Israeli citizen from Egyptian officials.

“I hope that this affair will allow us to improve relations with Egypt,” he said.

The United States welcomed Grapel’s release, and expressed hope for stronger ties between the Jewish state and the post-revolution Arab power.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington “welcomes” his release, and thanked both Egypt and Israel.

“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,” she said in a statement.

Grapel, 27, was arrested on June 12 and accused by Egypt’s military rulers of being an agent of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and of sowing sectarian strife during the uprising which ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February.

Israel has strongly denied the charges, insisting the whole thing was a mistake and accusing Egyptian authorities of “bizarre behaviour.”

Israel’s security cabinet on Tuesday approved the deal to free the 25 Egyptians in exchange for Grapel. The names of the detainees were published on October 25, giving Israelis 48 hours to file any legal challenges.

But there has been little domestic opposition to the release of the prisoners, who were all convicted of either illegally entering Israel or smuggling drugs or weapons.

The Israeli Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected an 11th-hour appeal, saying the exchange was a political decision in which they had no authority to intervene.

The returning Egyptian prisoners, all of them Bedouin, were welcomed with an official reception at a Taba hotel, attended by the governors of North and South Sinai, as well as representatives of the Bedouin community in the area.

Egyptian television broadcast footage of the prisoners arriving in Sinai, some of them bending down to kiss the ground.

Three minors among the detainees, two aged 15 and one aged 16, were the first to arrive, and were greeted by a welcome committee clutching flowers and Egyptian flags.

The governors held a press conference to hail the swap deal and fete the returning prisoners.

“Today is a celebration day, a historic day. It’s a great victory for us,” said South Sinai governor Khaled Fouda.

The prisoner exchange comes shortly after Egypt mediated the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for more than five years, in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian detainees.

But relations between Israel and Egypt have been strained since Mubarak’s overthrow in February.

Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state, but relations have soured amid popular anger over the Israeli-led blockade of the Gaza Strip and deadly border incidents in the Sinai peninsula.