Isabel Kershner
The New York Times (Analysis)
October 27, 2011 - 12:00am

Ilan Grapel, an American-Israeli citizen who had been held in Egypt since June, charged with spying for Israel, was released on Thursday in exchange for 25 Egyptians held in Israeli jails.

Mr. Grapel, 27, a law student from Queens, was flown from Cairo to Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv in the early evening, accompanied by Israeli officials. The released prisoners were transferred to Egypt through the Taba border crossing around the same time.

After arriving in Israel, Mr. Grapel was driven to Jerusalem to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Officials said that Mr. Grapel was expected to leave Israel for the United States on Friday. Representative Gary L. Ackerman of New York, a Democrat from Queens, was in Israel “to bring Ilan Grapel home,” according to a statement from the congressman’s office.

Mr. Grapel told reporters here on Monday night that he had been through a difficult experience because he was held in isolation. But he said that the Egyptian authorities had treated him with respect while in detention and that he was given better food than the average Egyptian.

Egyptian officials presented the exchange as a diplomatic victory. In Israel, the deal was seen as evidence of the quiet working relations with Egypt’s transitional military rulers, despite the fraying of ties since the overthrow in February of President Hosni Mubarak, a staunch ally.

But some Israeli commentators questioned why the government had to pay a price for Mr. Grapel after the Egyptians apparently acknowledged that he was not involved in espionage.

Amos Gilad, a senior official in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, told Israel Radio on Monday that the price paid by Israel was “reasonable.”

“What was the alternative?” he said. “To leave him in prison? He was not a spy.”

The 25 Egyptians had mostly been convicted of criminal offenses like drug smuggling and infiltration. Some had also been convicted of weapons possession, but none were classified as security prisoners who had killed Israelis.

Four of the 25, including three minors, had completed their sentences and were awaiting deportation from Israel, according to the Israeli prison authorities.

The Israel Prison Service said that the Egyptian authorities were supposed to revoke the charges against Mr. Grapel upon his release.

Israel announced Monday that it had reached an agreement with Egypt, with American assistance, for the release of Mr. Grapel. The American ambassador in Tel Aviv, Daniel Shapiro, and Mr. Grapel’s mother, Irene, were waiting for him on the tarmac at the Ben-Gurion airport.

On the Egyptian side of the Taba crossing, the prisoners released by Israel were greeted by Egyptian officials bearing garlands. Egyptian television showed some of those released kissing the ground once they reached Egyptian soil of the Sinai Peninsula.

The releases came just over a week after a much more complex, Egyptian-brokered exchange between Israel and Hamas. An Israeli soldier, Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, returned home from Gaza, where he had been held captive for more than five years, in return for the release of the first batch of a total of more than 1,000 Palestinians from Israeli jails, many convicted of deadly terrorist attacks.

Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from Cairo.


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