An Israeli citizen from Queens arrested in Egypt as a suspected spy was freed on Thursday after more than four months in jail, under a prisoner swap deal that has eased friction between the two countries.
Israel Hasson, an Israeli lawmaker who has been involved in the negotiations, told The Associated Press from Cairo that 27-year-old Ilan Grapel looked "fine" and was "smiling." Hasson and another Israeli official were dispatched to Egypt to escort Grapel on the one-hour flight to Tel Aviv.
Egypt traded the U.S.-born Grapel for 25 Egyptians, most of them smugglers, held in Israeli jails. The Egyptian prisoners passed through a land crossing from Israel as Grapel prepared to take off for Israel. TV footage 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 allegations against 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.
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," Daniel Grapel said in a telephone interview from his home in Queens, N.Y.
His wife, Irene, flew to Tel Aviv to meet their son, and they will remain in Israel for at least two days to meet with Israeli and American officials before returning to the U.S., he added.
The deal went ahead after the Israeli Supreme Court rejected petitions trying to stop the deal. Immediately after landing in Israel, Grapel was set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Grapel was volunteering at a legal aid group in Cairo that resettles refugees when he was arrested and accused of spying for Israel during the grass roots revolt that overthrew Mubarak.
He made no secret of his Israeli background, 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.
Grapel was born in the U.S. but 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.
Hasson 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 countries need that," he told Israel Radio.
Since Mubarak was toppled, Egypt's military rulers have often warned against what they call "foreign" attempts to destabilize the country. And like other Arab states, Egypt has a long history of blaming internal problems on Israel.
Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty — the first between an Arab state and the Jewish one — in 1979. Relations have been cool since, but Mubarak carefully upheld the pact.
While the military leaders that now rule Egypt have vowed to follow suit, they have unnerved Israel with overtures to Israel's enemy, the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza, a tiny patch of Palestinian territory that borders both countries.
Those improved ties appear to have helped Egypt finally broker a long-elusive prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas last week, in which Israel traded hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who had been held by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years.
Initially, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had taken the lead in 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.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv had no comment on the affair.