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Jailed Queens native freed in Egypt-Israel prisoner swap

JERUSALEM — U.S.-Israeli citizen Ilan Grapel was released Thursday after four months in Egyptian prison, as Israel freed 25 Egyptians in exchange in a deal that eased tensions between the two countries.

State television footage captured the moment Grapel, 27, arrived smiling and took his first steps off a plane and into his mother's arms. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and other officials greeted Grapel as he arrived at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport.

On Saturday, Grapel is expected to fly back to Queens, N.Y., to his parent's home there. Speaking before his release, Grapel's parents said they believed he was treated well in Egyptian custody and was allowed regular phone calls to his family.

Grapel was arrested on June 12 by Egyptian security forces in Cairo. He was initially charged with being a member of Israel's spy agency, the Mossad. Photographs of him in an Israeli army uniform were quickly published in the Egyptian press to support the claim that he had arrived in Cairo to spy for Israel.

Grapel's friends and family, however, describe him as "naive" and said that accusations he was a spy were "ridiculous."

"It wouldn't surprise me if when he was in Cairo he showed off to the wrong people," said Tzivka Levy, Grapel's liaison officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. "He probably showed off his Arabic and told people he was in the Israeli army, he was simply just naive."

Grapel's father, who is Israeli, says that Grapel grew up visiting Israel regularly. He spoke Hebrew fluently, as evidenced in numerous interviews Grapel gave following Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon, when he was lightly injured.

In one television interview, Grapel said he always felt a "deep connection" to Israel and was proud to serve in its military.

Levy said that Grapel was an eager soldier and had asked to be placed in a unit with Arabic speakers. Such units are often tasked with doing intelligence work.

"I told him that it wasn't a possibility. That he couldn't be in that kind of unit," said Levy. "He really wanted to understand not just Arabic but Arabs. It came from of a place and wanting to know the other to make peace. He believed in coexistence, in understanding each other."

Last month, Egypt changed the charges against Grapel from espionage to incitement. They claimed he had arrived in Egypt during the revolution that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak and had instigated attacks against public buildings.

Grapel's parents said he flew to Cairo as part of a program sponsored by his law school, Emory University. They said he wanted to volunteer with African refugees in Cairo.

Israeli officials said they worked in conjunction with U.S. officials to free Grapel.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. "worked hard to bring (Grapel) home."

Concerns that tension between the neighboring states could keep Grapel behind bars were eased when the deal was struck earlier this week. Relations between Egypt and Israel have remained fragile since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, an ally of Israel.

Many in Egypt and Israel criticized the deal.

In Egypt, family members joyously welcomed back the 25 prisoners who were released Thursday morning. All of them were serving time for minor offenses, largely smuggling.

Three of those released were minors who were arrested after attempting to smuggle cigarettes into Israel.

Some, however, felt that Egypt could have asked more for Grapel.

"I totally reject Egypt's deal with Israel," said Mustafa al-Boluk, a human rights advocate in Egypt's Northern Sinai. "How could Egyptian mediators secure the release of one Israeli soldier in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, and then fail to secure the release of all Egyptians in the Israeli prisons in the present deal?"

Last week, Egypt successfully mediated a deal between the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza and Israel, which released captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East scholar at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research center, said that the story behind Grapel's arrest and detention is still unclear.

"We don't know what the whole story is," Hanna said Thursday in Cairo, where he's conducting research ahead of elections next month.

It's also unclear how big a role the Egyptians played in the two recent prisoner exchanges. Hanna said they're "a more trusted intermediary for Hamas," but that such a deal could have occurred under the Mubarak regime if the Palestinians and Israelis had already agreed on the terms.

"I think they're helpful, but getting Schalit free was a Hamas-Netanyahu decision," Hanna said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "I just don't see that (the Egyptians) were the prime movers."

In Israel, the decision to release prisoners for captured or jailed Israeli nationals has spurred a great deal of debate.

Several right-wing Israeli lawmakers criticized the step as "disproportionate" and "unreasonable."

Lawmaker Michael Ben Ari said that the Israel's policy of prisoner exchanges only encouraged its enemies to attempt to capture Israelis as bargaining chips.

(Hannah Allam contributed from Cairo.)


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