JERUSALEM — One week after the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners gained freedom for an Israeli soldier, Israel's cabinet agreed Tuesday to another swap, this time with Egypt to win the release of an American-Israeli law student who has been in Egyptian custody since June 12.
The deal, expected to take place Thursday, would see 25 Egyptians held in Israeli jails go free in exchange for Ilan Grapel, 27, whose parents are expected to fly to Israel from their homes in Queens, N.Y., to welcome their son.
Grapel, who traveled to Egypt on a tourist visa while on holiday from Emory Law School earlier this year, has maintained that he is innocent of the charges leveled against him. Egyptian officials originally charged that Grapel was working for Israel's spy agency, the Mossad, and charged him with espionage. Those charges were dropped, and Egyptian authorities, citing video footage shot during demonstrations in Tahrir Square, charged him with incitement and damage to a public building.
Grapel's father, Daniel Grapel, has called the charges against his son "beyond ridiculous."
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"Anyone who knows Ilan in Israel knows that these spying stories aren't even funny. It's beyond ridiculous," he told the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.
He told Haaretz that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had arranged weekly phone calls with Ilan while he was in jail and that his son appeared in "good health."
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, lobbied Egypt in an effort to win Grapel's release. But discussions only made progress during talks that Egypt brokered between Israel and Hamas that concluded in last week's prisoner swap that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after more than five years in captivity.
An Israeli official from the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told McClatchy that the agreement to release Grapel took "additional time" because Egypt insisted that it be negotiated separately.
"There were a lot of concerns, a lot of parties involved," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the negotiations.
Grapel served in the Israeli military and was lightly wounded during the Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006. Photos and interviews with Grapel in the Israeli press were widely republished in Egypt as evidence that he had "Zionist ties."
The Israeli official said there was discussion over the type and number of Egyptian prisoners who would be released in exchange for Grapel.
The 25 Egyptian nationals to be freed have not been named, though Israeli officials said they have not been involved in "security offenses," which would include terrorist attacks. Most are believed to have been convicted of smuggling drugs or other goods across the border from Egypt to Israel. Two of the prisoners reportedly are minors.
Netanyahu's office released a statement that said Israel also was trying to secure the release of an Israeli Bedouin, Ouda Tarabin, who has been imprisoned by Egypt for more than 11 years after he was caught illegally crossing the border from Israel to Egypt.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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