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In swap, Israel gets 1, Egypt gets 25

Prisoner exchange to release U.S.-Israeli citizen jailed during uprising by IAN DEITCH THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | October 26, 2011 at 4:52 a.m.

— Israel on Tuesday officially approved a deal to swap 25 Egyptian prisoners for a U.S.-Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt four months ago on accusations of espionage.

The unanimous vote by Israel’s Security Cabinet cleared the way for Ilan Grapel to return home Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said, ending what has become an uncomfortable episode between the two allies.

Grapel, 27, was arrested June 12 during the height of Egypt’s uprising, which ousted President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

Egypt accused Grapel of being a Mossad agent trying to sabotage the revolution. But it gave no evidence to support the claims, and even in Egypt, the arrest was widely ridiculed.

Egypt’s new military rulers frequently warn against what they call “foreign” attempts to destabilize the country. Egypt, like other Arab states, has a long history of blaming internal problems on Israel.

Grapel denied the allegations, as did his friends and relatives.

His family said Grapel, a law student in Atlanta, was interested in Egyptian culture and was in Cairo volunteering at a legal-aid group when he was arrested.

Grapel made no secret of his Israeli background, entered Egypt under his real name and his Facebook page had pictures of him in an Israeli military uniform.

Israeli lawmaker Israel Hasson said he visited Grapel in Cairo on Monday, the day the deal was first announced. He said Grapel was doing well and was held in “fair and good conditions.”

Hasson said he greeted Grapel with “Shalom,” Hebrew for hello, but was answered in Arabic because Grapel thought he was an Egyptian interrogator.

Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, maintaining cool but cordial relations for more than 30 years. But since Mubarak was toppled in February, tensions have grown as Egypt’s new regime distances itself from Mubarak and improves its ties with Israel’s enemy, the Hamas militant group.

The Grapel deal is the latest sign, though, that relations may be improving.

Egypt also played a key role in mediating last week’s prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. Under the deal, Israel freed hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who had been held by Hamas for more than five years.

None of the 25 Egyptians set for release are militants. They are believed to be primarily smugglers working the porous border between the two countries, sneaking into Israel with contraband and people seeking asylum or work.

The Grapel deal has come under criticism from some quarters in Israel. Arieh Eldad, a hard-line lawmaker, said friendly nations don’t engage in uneven prisoner swaps or arrest each other’s citizens on “made-up charges.”

“Schalit was held by a brutal terror group, but Egypt is a sovereign country that we have diplomatic ties with. What will happen if tomorrow Turkey arrests an Israeli tourist, convicts him of aiding the Turkish underground and demand the release of 100 or 200 terrorists in exchange? What are the criteria? Where is the red line?” he asked on Channel 2 TV.

Meanwhile in Egypt, an international rights group warned Tuesday that Egypt’s ruling generals may try to cover up the circumstances surrounding the killings of more than 20 Coptic Christian demonstrators when the military broke up their protest by force earlier this month.

Egypt’s ruling military council, which took power after the ouster of Mubarak in a popular uprising, has portrayed the Oct. 9 protest and the ensuing bloodshed as the work of provocateurs.

The clashes left 27 people dead, at least 21 of them Christians, the deadliest single episode since Mubarak’s ouster.

The violence and the military’s handling of the aftermath have fueled criticism that Egypt’s new rulers are not implementing changes that would lead to an open, democratic regime.

Information for this article was contributed from Cairo by Maggie Michael and Ben Hubbard of The Associated Press.

Front Section, Pages 2 on 10/26/2011

Print Headline: In swap, Israel gets 1, Egypt gets 25

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