Grapel: Swap for my release ‘not humiliating for Israel’

In ‘Washington Post’ op-ed, Israeli-American student defends conduct in Egypt, says he changed minds about Jewish state.

Grapel meets with Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Grapel meets with Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Ilan Grapel – the dual US-Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt this summer on charges of espionage – said Monday he does not regret traveling to the country and defended his conduct there as helping strengthen understanding between Egyptians and Israelis.
In a Washington Post op-ed, the 27-year-old law student said his visit was neither reckless nor wrong and “forgave” Egyptian authorities for wrongly imprisoning him.
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Grapel traveled to Egypt in May 2011 to work at a nongovernmental organization that provides legal assistance to asylum-seekers from conflict zones. In June he was arrested at his Cairo hotel on suspicion of working for Israeli intelligence to foment sectarian strife and gather intelligence on the country in the wake of president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
“I hoped that my summer would prove that my Zionist ideals could coexist with support for the right of human migration and sanctuary,” he wrote in the op-ed.
Grapel was freed on October 25 – a week after the Gilad Schalit prisoner swap – in exchange for 25 Egyptian prisoners.
On Monday Grapel reiterated that his behavior was neither reckless nor naive.
“Israeli journalists... continue to travel to the Arab world for a story,” he wrote on this reporter’s Facebook page. “If the same thing happened but I was there because of journalistic reasons, the opprobrium would have been unjustly much less.
“[T]he release of minors and prisoners who completed or were near completion of their sentence was not humiliating to Israel. There is a reason that Israel was the only one negotiating on the ground, and it was not because American [sic] forced them to,” he wrote.
“With regards to my hasbara [public diplomacy], it was not the cause of my detention (nor my main reason for going), but it facilitated my release...Because I sometimes told people and friends I was from Israel, the prosecutor and the mookhabarat [secret police] strained to believe their story after a couple of weeks.”
The Queens, New York, native had visited Egypt before, including a stint studying Arabic in Cairo. During those previous visits, he wrote in the Washington Post, he had been able to engage Egyptians – even Muslim Brotherhood members – about Israel and change some of their misconceptions.
“So during the summer I emphasized my Israeli background, even when I entered Egypt as an American,” Grapel wrote. “I identified as a Zionist Israeli to all of my Egyptian friends, taught them Hebrew and showed them Israeli movies. In return, I received lessons in Arabic, Islam and Egyptian culture.”
Grapel had served two years in the IDF and been wounded in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. He is currently studying law at Atlanta’s Emory University.
“Hasbara, the Hebrew term that refers to efforts to explain the Israeli viewpoint, has much to gain from such a strategy, given the pernicious myths about Israel and Jews prevalent in much of the Arab world,” Grapel wrote.
“My hasbara provided a viewpoint that changed the mentalities of former Muslim Brotherhood members, the prosecutor and my guards, whose last words were ‘Shalom, we hope you forgive us,’” he wrote. “Israelis and Arabs can continue to maintain the status quo of mutual avoidance or they can dare to coexist. To those who wrongly held me, I say simply, I forgive you.”
In contrast to the fanfare accompanying the Schalit swap, Grapel’s release received relatively little coverage in Israel. Many Israelis viewed the latter’s conduct in Egypt as ill-advised if not downright reckless: Grapel was photographed carrying protest signs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in June joked on his Facebook page that he was “preaching at Al-Azhar,” the city’s iconic thousand-year-old mosque.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.