JERUSALEM — A dual U.S.-Israeli citizen held in Egypt since June as an alleged spy for Israel was freed Thursday in return for the release of 25 Egyptian prisoners jailed in Israel, in a deal reached after high-level intervention by Washington.
Ilan Grapel, 27, was flown to Israel after the Egyptians were handed over at the Taba border crossing between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Accompanied by two Israeli emissaries who had helped negotiate the deal, Grapel stepped out of an executive jet into the embrace of his mother, Irene, on the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport.
He was also greeted by U.S. Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who represents Grapel’s home borough of Queens, and by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. Grapel was driven to Jerusalem for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was expected to leave Friday for the United States.
Hours earlier at the Taba border terminal, the freed Egyptians knelt and kissed the ground after crossing into Egypt, where they were given a hero’s welcome. Draped with wreaths and Arab head scarves, they waved Egyptian flags as they were greeted by local officials at a news conference.
The deal removed what had been a sore point in relations between Washington and Cairo. It also raised the prospect of an easing of tensions between Israel and Egypt, whose ties have frayed since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in February. Protesters stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo last month, angered by the killing of five Egyptian security officers by Israeli troops pursuing militants after a deadly cross-border attack.
“The United States welcomes the release of Ilan Grapel, who we have worked hard to bring home,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. “We thank the governments of Egypt and Israel for their roles in reuniting him with his family. 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.”
Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord in 1979, and Egypt’s interim military rulers have pledged to uphold it.
Israel has denied the Egyptian allegations that Grapel, a law student at Emory University in Atlanta, was a spy. His parents said he had been working in Cairo for a group that helps refugees when he was arrested on June 12. Egyptian officials accused him of gathering intelligence about the Egyptian revolution, inciting protesters to violence, and sedition, although he had not been formally charged.
Grapel made no secret of his Israeli identity, posting Facebook images of himself in an army uniform during his military service in Israel. He also posted pictures of himself in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Egyptian uprising.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, Grapel immigrated to Israel and was wounded while serving as a paratrooper in Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. He returned to the United States later to study law.
Most of the 25 Egyptians freed in the prisoner swap, including three minors, were jailed on charges of cross-border smuggling of arms or drugs, and none had been convicted of attacks on Israelis, according to a list published by the Israeli prisons service.
Ismail al-Atrash, 26, rushed into his brothers’ arms after his release. He had been in an Israeli jail for 30 months after being picked up on the Israeli side of the border.
“The happiness I feel is indescribable,” he said. “Hopefully the prisoners still held in Israel will get to go home soon, as well.”
The prisoner deal was touted by Egyptian officials and commentators on state television as a national achievement, demonstrating Egypt’s role as a regional power broker. It follows an Egyptian-mediated prisoner-swap deal between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas in which more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are to be freed in exchange for an Israeli soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Gilad Shalit, who was held captive for more than five years in the Gaza Strip. Shalit and the first group of Palestinian prisoners were released last week.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo contributed to this report.