US-born ex-paratrooper held in Egypt 'not a spy' says Israel
JERUSALEM // Israel's foreign minister said yesterday that a US-born Israeli arrested in Egypt on espionage charges was not a spy, offering the first official Israeli comment on the case.
Ilan Grapel, who served in the Israeli army as a paratrooper, "has no connection to any intelligence agency, not in Israel, not in the US and not on Mars", Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio.
The foreign minister said Mr Grapel's arrest was a "mistake, or bizarre behaviour, on the part of the Egyptians" and said he hoped "this saga will end as soon as possible". Israel, he added, had sent clarifications to Egypt.
Mr Grapel's family and friends say he is a law student in Atlanta with an avid interest in the Middle East, and not a Mossad agent out to sabotage Egypt's revolution, as Egyptian authorities claim.
Mr Grapel, 27, was arrested on Sunday at a hotel in Cairo, where he was working for a legal aid group.
His mother and a fellow student said he arrived in Cairo in May. Egypt says he came in mid-January, just before the protests that toppled long-time autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak began, and accuses him of inciting sedition, spreading rumours, and kindling friction between protesters and the military that now rules the country.
Mr Grapel was US-born and raised, but his family has Israeli roots and he holds dual American-Israeli citizenship. Like most Israeli citizens, he performed compulsory military service. He was wounded in Israel's 2006 war against Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Mr Grapel appears to have been travelling under his real name and made no secret of his Israeli links. His connections to Israel, including his past military service, are easy to find on the internet, making it questionable that he was an agent of Israel's spy service.
Mr Grapel's arrest has set off new fears in Israel that relations with Egypt will sour now that Mr Mubarak has been deposed.
Since Mr Mubarak's fall, Egypt's military rulers have often warned against unspecified "foreign" attempts to destabilise the country. Egypt has a long history of blaming internal problems on Israeli saboteurs.
Reflecting the Egyptian interest, Mr Grapel's case remained on the front pages of most Cairo newspapers yesterday. Articles were accompanied by photographs of Mr Grapel, including images of him in Arab headdress in front of a pyramid; at the Cairo square that was the centre of the revolt that toppled Mr Mubarak; and in an Israeli military uniform.
The independent Al Masry Al Youm daily said he had told investigators the information and the videos found in his possession were available on the internet and that Israel had no need to send an agent to obtain them.
The semi-official Al Ahram published a photograph of him in a hospital bed after he was wounded in the Lebanon war. The paper said he entered Egypt for a few days in February, then returned in May. Al Ahram also reported that he tried to enter Libya from Egypt to visit rebel-held areas in the east, but did not say whether he went there or not.
Published: June 15, 2011 04:00 AM