RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Israel has announced a new deal to exchange prisoners. It involves an Israeli-American who's been held in Egypt for the past four months. Ilan Grapel will be freed from Egyptian custody this afternoon in return for 25 Egyptian prisoners freed by Israel. The deal was mediated by the U.S. Sheera Frenkel reports from Jerusalem.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: A few years ago, Ilan Grapel conducted this interview in Hebrew about his service in the Israeli army. Grapel, who was born and raised in Queens, New York, and is a dual citizen, says he fell in love with Israel and wanted to join its military. Those who know Grapel say he regularly boasted about his army service. It was likely that boasting drew the attention of Egyptian security forces when Grapel traveled to Cairo earlier this year.
On June 12th, Grapel was arrested and charged with spying on Egypt for Israel's famed intelligence agency, the Mossad. Interviews of him speaking Hebrew and wearing his Israeli army uniform were widely published in the Egyptian press as evidence. Grapel's family say the assertion that their son is a spy is ridiculous. Tzvika Levy, who is Grapel's liaison officer in the army, says Grapel is fluent in Arabic and always wanted to travel in the Arab world.
TZVIKA LEVY: (Through translator) He really wanted to understand not just Arabic, but Arabs. It came from a place of wanting to know the other to make peace. He believed in co-existence and understanding each other.
FRENKEL: Levy says that Grapel's interest in the Arab world spurred the rumors that he was a member of the Mossad.
LEVY: (Through translator) Ilan always wanted to be in a unit that had Arabic speakers, and I had to explain that it wasn't possible. I told him, when you're running around Jenin and Nablus, try speaking Arabic to the locals.
FRENKEL: He suggested that Grapel wanted to be in intelligence but was never accepted. Instead, Grapel joined the paratroopers, where he was wounded in the second Lebanon war. It was his service in the Israeli defense forces that helped convince Israel to campaign for his release from Egypt. Last month the initial charge was dropped in favor of one of arson and incitement to violence. Egyptian security officials claimed that Grapel traveled to Cairo during the revolution and destroyed public buildings.
Photographs that Grapel uploaded to Facebook show him smiling, dressed conspicuously in khakis and a polo t-shirt next to young Egyptian protestors. Levy says the 27-year-old Emory Law School student probably did little to blend in.
LEVY: (Through translator) He showed off his Arabic and told people he was in the Israeli army. He was simply just naÃ¯ve.
FRENKEL: Some Israeli organizations have been vocal in their opposition to the prisoner exchange and say Israel should not release any prisoners for captured or jailed nationals. They protested the deal to release Grapel for 25 Egyptian nationals. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out that the Egyptians are all serving for non-security offenses, just smuggling, and that three of them are minors. An Israeli court ruled Wednesday that the deal should go forward.
Last week Egypt successfully brokered a deal between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza, which exchanged captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for 1027 Palestinian prisoners. Levy says this deal is much smaller. American lawmakers, including Grapel's congressman, have lobbied for his release. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta raised the issue on a trip to Cairo earlier this month. Grapel is expected to be flown into Israel Thursday afternoon, where he will meet with Netanyahu and other officials. On Saturday he will return home with his parents. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.