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Four Months in the Life of Ilan Grapel

Formerly captive Israeli-American law student speaks about his time in Egypt

Marc Tracy
December 07, 2011
Ilan Grapel and his mother, Irene Breslaw, in October.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
Ilan Grapel and his mother, Irene Breslaw, in October.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s been a little more than a month since the Israeli-American citizen Ilan Grapel, held by Egyptian authorities since June on suspicions of being an Israeli spy (widely and plausibly believed to be trumped-up), was freed into Israeli hands thanks to American and Israeli efforts and in exchange for 25 Egyptian nationals held on minor offenses in Israel. “Don’t worry, we’re not actually releasing anyone we want in our jails anymore,” a Knesset member told Grapel soon after he landed in Israel, he recalled last night in front of a gathering at the Yale Club in New York organized by Emory Law School, where he will resume his studies next semester. Moderator Herbert Buchsbaum had playfully teased Grapel for not costing nearly as many prisoners as the much more famous Israeli captive, Gilad Shalit. But Grapel, tall and lanky, pale and tired-looking, strikingly quick and charismatic, mostly seemed happy to be out of solitary confinement, Egyptian prison, and the threat of five life sentences, no matter the high (or low) cost.

Here is some of what Grapel told us (a few dozen gathered in the fourth-floor library, including his mother, Irene Breslaw, who plays viola in the New York Philharmonic) about his capture and imprisonment. Contrary to Egyptian media, which reported he had been staying at a four-star hotel, on June 12 he was taken from his $9/night open-door hostel near Tahrir Square—“worse than my jail cell”—by plainclothes security officers who asked him his nationality and told him the handcuffs, the black van, and the blindfold were standard (given that he spent his time taking testimony from Darfur refugees, he suspected otherwise, and was terrified). The first charge mentioned was “participation in the January 25 revolution,” which he initially felt happy of pleading guilty to, thinking this a good thing, until it was explained to him that it was decidedly a bad thing, the first of much evidence that “the claims of the accomplishments of the revolution are non-existent.” When he told them he was an Emory Law student, they asked, “What’s Emory?” He began to cite the famous Emory faculty member Salman Rushdie, but then thought better of it; he instead mentioned the law school dean, only to remember that he is Baha’i and so that that, too, probably shouldn’t come up.

The key, according to Grapel, was to avoid an indictment: once one was handed down, Egypt’s desire to maintain the illusion of judicial independence (as well as the military’s presumed insistence that Grapel be convicted of any alleged crimes) would likely have doomed him. Duly, the U.S. and Israel focused on avoiding one, instead hoping either that they could free him before six months—the length of time during which you may be held sans indictment in Egypt—was up or that, after six months, the political situation would be such that the authorities could free him without being concerned about the popular response.

Of course, the political situation did not cooperate, as the other panelist, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook, explained. In August and September, tensions between Egypt and Israel were heightened as perhaps never before: the Sinai pipeline continued to be sabotaged; six Egyptian policemen were killed in a crossborder raid after Israel retaliated for terrorist attacks that originated in Gaza; and the Israeli embassy was stormed. Without knowing these specifics, Grapel said he sensed he was in the greatest danger in August and September—and he was right.

By October, with things calmed down and the Shalit deal going through, the Egyptians could make a deal. Certainly they did not believe they had a Mossad operative: Egyptian-Israeli intelligence cooperation has continued to be strong, according to Cook, so they would have known; and anyway, as the prosecutor told Grapel, “if you’re a spy, you’re the worst spy in the world.” So while Grapel was accused of spying, and of storming the embassy, and of sabotaging the pipeline, and of seducing Egyptian women (“and when you get these girls, do you convince them to drink blood for Passover?” he was apparently asked), no indictment ever came down, making the prisoner swap relatively easy.

Grapel was not physically abused, though it sounded as though solitary confinement and being mostly denied access to books was tortuous enough (he actually requested law school casebooks, he said, on the theory that they were limiting his number of books so he may as well get really long ones). He was interrogated for his first and final two weeks, but otherwise had little contacts with anyone, apart from his biweekly meetings with the U.S. consul. He ate well, and indeed one of the few things that prompted threats from the Egyptians of torture was the prospect of him going on a hunger strike. He can never go back to Egypt or, really, anywhere in the Arab world (he wants to spend time in Latin America; apparently, Prime Minister Netanyahu told him to avoid Cuba and Cook urged, “There’s lots of Hezbollah in South America—what about northern Europe? Denmark?”).

Introducing Grapel, Buchsbaum noted that Grapel’s summer activity of working for a non-governmental organization in Cairo “gave new meaning to the word ‘internship.’” It was so-not-funny-it-was-funny line, but it hinted at the $64,000 question: you’re a half-Israeli Jew; you served in the IDF; you want to work in civil society—why go to Cairo, where you know you’ll be a target? This is the common line against Grapel in Israel, and it apparently led some right-wing politicians to try to block the swap.

Grapel rejected charges of naïveté—he understood the risks going in, he said: “I was well aware I was a target.” Foolhardy idealism, perhaps? I’ll mark that against him, but that derives as much out of my admiration for him, and my wish that I had a bit more of his admittedly somewhat reckless abandon. “I was helping refugees flee genocide in Darfur,” he said, “and the people who rescued my grandfather from genocide were called heroes.” What a young-person thing to say! Grapel is 28—“I had my birthday in prison.” Shalit is 25. And, as Buchsbaum reminded us all at the beginning of the night, the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 when he lit himself on fire.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.