CAIRO: On Monday, the State Security Prosecution began questioning an Israeli national named Ilan Grapel over alleged espionage activities in Egypt, attempting to provoke citizens against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as well as inciting sectarian strife in the country.
The case is likely to stir further tension between the two countries, analyst Abdel-Aleem Mohamed, senior researcher of Israeli studies at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Daily News Egypt.
Grapel was arrested Sunday morning at a hotel in downtown Cairo and remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigation.
Following the detention, the General Prosecutor’s office said in a statement on its official Facebook page that Grapel arrived in Egypt after the January 25 Revolution erupted as a foreign correspondent. He was frequently seen during several Friday protests in Tahrir Square. He was also witnessed in Imbaba neighborhood during sectarian clashes that broke out in early May, the statement said.
On its part, the Israeli government denied Sunday that any Mossad spy was caught in Egypt.
A Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said the ministry was “totally and completely unfamiliar with the story,” and was looking into the matter, after first hearing about it in the media, Israel-based Jerusalem Post reported.
Israel’s ambassador to Cairo said on Monday that Israel was looking into the case. The US embassy in Cairo said it was working to confirm Grapel’s identity and citizenship.
Israeli commentators said reports that an Israeli citizen was arrested for spying for the Mossad in Cairo seemed strange.
"I can’t imagine that there will be any Israeli reactions, but anyone who knows even a little bit about these things knows that you don’t have an Israeli with an Israeli passport sitting in a foreign capital collecting things," said Channel 2 news analyst Ehud Yaari. Commentators said that traveling under his real name made it unlikely that he would be a spy.
Egypt’s recently eased restrictions on the Rafah border crossing to allow Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to pass through six days a week, raising the concern of the Israeli government.
“Egyptian-Israeli relations are not in best shape at the time being, entering into a phase of uncertainty,” said Abdel-Aleem.
“There are different factors that may raise the fear of Israel including the future Egyptian ruler…and the possibility of seeking an amendment to the peace agreement,” he added.
SCAF has been running the country since former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11 following an 18-day nationwide uprising that demanded his ouster.
“Israel was surprised by the new situation in Egypt [following the revolution] and that its speculations about Mubarak remaining in office …or the possible inheritance of power scenario faded away,” Abdel-Aleem said.
“Israeli authorities never imagined that a revolution would break out and overthrow [its long-time ally] Mubarak,” he added.
Also in May, the Egyptian government sponsored a reconciliation agreement between the two rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.
The Egyptian government’s determination to review the contract about exporting natural gas to Israel may have raised further tensions between the two states.
Earlier in April, the North Sinai pipeline providing Israel with natural gas was set ablaze by five unidentified masked gunmen. Investigations are still underway into the incident.
On Friday, the pipeline resumed pumping gas to Israel on an experimental basis.
Ex-Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former pointman in Israel’s relations with Egypt, said on Israel Radio he hoped the arrest was not an attempt to "put peace into total freeze." Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 which ordinary Israelis refer to as "the cold peace."
Egyptian authorities said Grapel’s movements and phone calls were monitored before his arrest. Pictures and videos of the suspect, apparently provided by the Egyptian authorities, appeared on Egyptian news portals and in Monday’s newspapers.
Some pictures showed him in what was described as an Israeli army uniform posing with other soldiers, and in others shaking hands with worshippers at a mosque in Cairo.
One picture showed Grapel standing in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of protests that brought down Mubarak, wearing sunglasses and holding a large sign that read: "Oh stupid Obama, it is a pride revolution not a food revolution."
Another front page photo on the state-owned daily Al-Ahram and appearing repeatedly on state TV showed Grapel holding a microphone in a mosque, apparently “preaching.”
Daily Israeli Haaretz said “a man of the same name and personal history was interviewed by the newspaper in 2006, after being injured in the Second Lebanon War.” According to the paper, Grapel studied in Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva for one academic year, and during that time he decided to enlist in the Israeli Defense Force.
Will Felder, a 29-year-old law student at Emory University in Atlanta, identified Grapel as a classmate originally from Queens, New York. Grapel moved to Israel, where his grandparents live, as a young man and did his compulsory military service during the 2006 war.
He was wounded in the fighting, Felder said, and Israeli news websites on Monday published what they said were old pictures of Grapel lying in his hospital bed. A 2006 New York Daily News story reported that Grapel had been wounded by shrapnel in fighting in south Lebanon. The same article said he studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and moved to Israel in 2005.
Grapel later returned to the US for law school and was in Cairo doing a legal internship with a local nonprofit organization ahead of his return to Emory for his third and final year of studies, Felder said.
"His parents became concerned because he hadn’t shown up for work," Felder said, and then saw their son’s name being reported as that of "a Mossad spy who had been arrested."
An acquaintance in Israel, Ziki Ud, told Israel Radio that Grapel had an avid interest in the Middle East and had studied Arabic. Ud, too, said he doubted the allegations were true.
Grapel had previously taken part in the Israel Project’s media fellows program in Jerusalem on "educating top young leaders in how to educate the press on Israel and Iran."
In a comment that appears on the Israel Project’s web page about the program, Grapel said he had been impressed by an Israeli Foreign Ministry’s official’s briefing on conveying Israel’s positions to the Arab world. "It would be very rewarding for me if I were to be able to communicate as effectively (as the official) in such anti-Israel environments," Grapel wrote.
His Facebook profile picture shows him at what looked like Al-Azhar mosque. News reports said he introduced himself on the social networking site as a Muslim covert. Yet there was no available information whatsoever about him anymore on Facebook at the time of press other than his picture on the page.
Grapel’s mother, Irene, said her son had been working for Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services, a non-governmental organization, in Cairo. In a telephone interview with Israel’s Channel 2 TV, she said he holds US and Israeli citizenship and that she had not spoken to him since his arrest.
Investigations conducted by the attorney general at the State Security Prosecution indicated that he attempted to recruit a number of Egyptians to acquire information about the situation in Egypt on the social, political, security, economic and political levels after the revolution.
Among these issues were the sectarian strife and the advent of Islamist movements.
State-run Al-Ahram said Grapel was equipped with "communication devices, laptops, CDs, and flash memory." – Additional reporting by agencies.