Tel Aviv — Egypt’s arrest of Queens native Ilan Grapel on spy allegations spurred denials from Israeli officials, family and friends, as well as speculation (in Egypt as well) that officials seized on Facebook photos of the Emory University law student from his days as an Israel Defense Forces paratrooper to pander to popular fears that the Mossad is ever-present.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Egyptian behavior “strange” and urged the Egyptian government to fix its “mistake” and put a rest to the incident.
Meanwhile, Grapel’s mother insisted that her son was a full-time student with no ties to the Mossad. “It’s very difficult for a second-year law student to have that kind of extracurricular activity. He works in the law library to make money,” Irene Grapel told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “So he’s busy. He’s not a spy.”
Grapel, who went to P.S. 188 in Hollis Hills and the Bronx High School of Science before attending college at Johns Hopkins University, is the unlikely American Jewish kid who immigrated to Israel and joined the IDF, while cultivating a passion for Arab culture, traveling around the Middle East and reaching out to Israel’s neighbors. But now he is caught in the crosswinds of regional turmoil as the U.S. and Israel try to talk Egypt down from the espionage accusations. Did he overreach by trying to experience ground zero of the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square, for himself?
Many believe the trip, though well intentioned, was ill advised. He traveled to Egypt with a public service grant from Emory to work for a nonprofit to help in the resettlement of African refugees. But even though he entered Egypt on a U.S. passport, Grapel’s Facebook photo spread of his Israeli service exposed him to potential accusations of being an Israeli agent.
Israelis who have maintained contacts with Egyptians said that the act of fraternizing with everyday Egyptians tripped alarm bells in a country still paranoid about Israeli infiltration despite a decades-old peace treaty.
“This is a very naïve guy,” said Oded Beit Halachmy, an Israeli businessmen who has worked in Egypt for years. “You are not allowed to interfere in internal social affairs. He was involved with the common people, lower-level people. He should not have been. The assumption is always there, that if you are involved with lower-level people, you are trying to hire them for the Mossad.”
Beit Halachmy predicted the arrest would put a new roadblock in the way of miniscule commercial activity between the countries, which has already been chilled since the Egyptian revolution.
Yoav Stern, a former Arab affairs reporter for Haaretz, said that he concurred that Grapel’s dealings with Egyptians diverged from the norm, he said.
“It is a bit strange, unfortunately,” Stern said. “You can be a tourist, but to socialize with people in Tahrir Square is not common,” he said. “It’s an internal Egyptian issue, and Israeli presence always make Egyptians uncomfortable and nervous, and Israelis know that.”
Grapel’s mother said that both she and her husband Daniel had misgivings about Ilan’s proposal to work for the St. Andrew’s Refugee Service in Cairo. Grapel’s father worried about the instability and uncertainty of post-revolutionary Egypt. But ultimately she couldn’t prevent her 27-year-old son from going.
“He loves the Arabic culture,” Irene Grapel said. “He loves Egypt. He’s even interested in the region.”
Irene said that the last time she communicated with Ilan before his arrest was last Saturday via an Internet chat. Then, on Sunday afternoon, the St. Andrew’s Refugee Service informed the Grapels that Ilan had not reported to work. On Monday, the family finally spoke to Ilan when the Egyptians permitted a meeting with an American consul.
“He sounded OK,” she said. “He was with the attaché from the embassy in Cairo. It was kind of reassuring the way that he sounded.”
On Tuesday, Israeli officials were permitted to meet with Grapel.
“Their impression of him was that he is in a good shape,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor, who said that because Grapel entered Egypt on a U.S. passport, he was technically under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Embassy.
But it is Grapel’s service in the Israeli army that has been a lightning rod, giving the accusations a sense of plausibility. There are pictures of Grapel hunkered down in a house inside Lebanon during the 2006 war, and there is a shot of him in uniform and beret with a machine gun slung over his back against a Jerusalem background.
“He loves Israel, he loves the Jewish people, and at the same time, he loves humanity,” said Joshua Kahn, a friend of Grapel’s from a study-abroad program they both attended at Ben Gurion University. “He’s just a student who is fascinated with Arabic culture.”
When Grapel planned to visit Egypt, Kahn said he wasn’t surprised
“He did unconventional things. He wanted to go to a place where he could use his Arabic, and he certainly didn’t go to a place to spy for Israel. He just wanted to go there to be at an exciting place at an exciting time. … I’m scared for him in an Egyptian jail.” Although the arrest isn’t expected to upend Israeli-Egyptian strategic ties, it joins a growing critical mass of incidents that highlight how strained even the cold peace has become since the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt has backed reconciliation between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, and opened up its border with Gaza to the chagrin of Israel. At the same time Cairo has reached out to Iran, and some Egyptians have called for rethinking gas supply contracts with Israel.
The arrest of Grapel spurred a myriad of accusations in the Egyptian press: that he was trying to sow sectarian strife between Muslims and Christian Copts; that he had entered the country with a false visa; and that he was seeking to enter Libya. In fact, according to his mother, the speculation that Grapel was preparing to go to Libya “is pure fabrication.” She also denied charges that he was in the south of the country fomenting unrest, saying: “I know he was in Cairo all the time. He had a job there. I don’t see how he could have been in the south of the country.”
The accusations take on more traction in a country with a struggling economy and in which stability has been undermined in the transition to a post-Mubarak government, said Israeli analysts. Egypt’s media has been “preoccupied” with the controversy, making it more difficult to negotiate Grapel’s swift deportation and avoid a trial.
“We are in the middle of a revolutionary moment,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben Gurion University’s Haim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies Diplomacy, in an interview with Israel Radio.
“The entire order in Egypt, insofar as the government and internal security, basically collapsed in February,” Meital said. “What we are seeing now — and people who visited, myself included, saw this in the days after the revolution — is that criticism of Israel is on a constant rise. The timing of this affair is at a time when there is very harsh criticism of Israelis and Israel. This, of course, doesn’t help.”
Not all Egyptians bought into the charges, however. Grapel’s Facebook updates on his travels in Egypt “are hardly the remit of a super spy,” wrote Abdel Rahman Hussein on the Egyptian news website Al Masry Al Yom. “Meanwhile, the evidence presented by Egypt’s own spooks seems less than convincing.”
The same article quoted a historian from the Arab Social Science Council, Mohamed al-Gawady, who said that “there seemed to be no tangible benefit to Israel from Grapel’s presence in Egypt, especially in the post-uprising era, when an exposé like this could severely harm the relationship between the two countries.”
Staff Writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.