Israel government approves prisoner swap with Egypt


Israel’s security cabinet approved unanimously the freeing of 25 Egyptian prisoners to secure the release of an Israeli-American held by Cairo on suspicion of espionage, the government said.

The statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that under the deal reached on Monday, 27-year-old Ilan Grapel, who has dual nationality, “was expected to arrive in Israel on Thursday”, four months after he was detained.

Israel said it would free 25 prisoners, three of them aged under 18, “at Egypt’s request” and called for additional steps to help free another Israeli citizen, Oudeh Suleiman Tarabin, who was jailed by Egypt 11 years ago, Reuters reports.

There was little controversy in Israel surrounding the cabinet vote. Those being freed had been jailed for routine offences, including drug and weapons smuggling, rather than espionage or attacks on Israelis, Israeli media and officials have said.

At the time of his arrest Egypt accused Grapel of being a spy seeking to recruit agents and monitor events after the popular revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February, an ally of both the United States and Israel.

Israel has denied that Grapel was involved in espionage.

He emigrated to Israel in 2005 from New York and served in the Israeli military during the war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon the following year.

His mother said when he was arrested that Grapel was a law student in the United States working for a charity helping refugees in Cairo.

The deal to free Grapel comes days after a successful Egyptian-brokered swap between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas, which exchanged captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The latest trade may also help ease strains in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship, which has been under pressure since the toppling of Mubarak, who had long defended their 1979 peace treaty despite its unpopularity with many Egyptians.

When Israeli troops killed five Egyptian border guards in August after an incident in which eight Israelis were killed near the frontier – possibly by Palestinians – protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing its evacuation.