EGYPT: Authorities detain American law student accused of spying for Israel

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Egyptian authorities have arrested an American-born law student, who reportedly is doing an internship at a nonprofit organization in Cairo, on charges of being an Israeli spy.

Ilan Chaim Grapel, 27, was detained Sunday in Cairo on “suspicion of espionage and spying on Egypt with the aim to harm its economic and political interest,” according to a statement released by the Egyptian General Prosecution office. Grapel will be held for 15 days pending interrogation, a spokesman for the office said in a statement.

Egyptian intelligence officials believe Grapel, a former Israeli soldier, was sent to Cairo by the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, to provide military and political intelligence and recruit Egyptian agents, according to the spokesman’s statement.

The spokesman noted that Grapel participated in a number of anti-government protests during the revolution, and accused him of attempting to disrupt the demonstrations by provoking attacks on protesters.


Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

A video of images Egyptian security authorities released to Al Masry Al Youm newspaper’s website shows Grapel at protests and standing outside a police station made famous when it was stormed by anti-government protesters.

The caption says, ‘Egyptian security authorities released a video that allegedly shows an Israeli spy as he is being monitored by security,’ while the subtitles, paired with sinister music, say, ‘Israeli spy on Cairo streets.’

Egyptian state television reported that Grapel posed as a foreign correspondent and was monitored for months by Egyptian authorities before his arrest.

On Monday, however, an American law student who says he is a former classmate of Grapel’s disputed the spying allegations.

Will Felder, a 29-year-old law student at Emory University in Atlanta, told the Associated Press that Grapel is originally from Queens, N.Y. He moved to Israel as a youth, joining his grandparents, and served in the Israeli army during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, when he was wounded in the fighting, Felder said.

Grapel later returned to the U.S. for law school and was in Cairo doing an internship with a local nonprofit before returning to complete his studies, Felder said.

“His parents became concerned because he hadn’t shown up for work,” Felder told the Associated Press.

Grapel’s mother, Irene Grapel, told Israeli Army Radio that she spoke with her son by telephone Monday, a conversation facilitated by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. She said he assured her he was not hurt and had been allowed to meet with U.S. diplomats in Egypt.

Irene Grapel told Army Radio that the allegations against her son were ‘totally false’ and that he was simply ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time.’

She told him to ‘stay strong’ in the telephone conversation and promised him she would get him freed. She said he was in Egypt volunteering with an organization that helps refugees.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement Sunday reacting to Grapel’s detention, saying that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo ‘is providing Ilan Grapel, an arrested U.S. citizen, with the same assistance it provides to all U.S. citizens arrested overseas.’

The statement said consular officers had already visited Grapel and planned to contact Egyptian authorities to ensure that he is ‘being treated fairly under local law.’

‘An American consular officer has visited him [Grapel] and he is under the care of the American Embassy in Cairo,’ the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday.

The ministry said that Grapel entered Egypt using his American passport, and therefore Egyptian authorities initially contacted the American Embassy in Cairo and not the Israeli Embassy, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram said Grapel had recently attended protests and “incited the protesters to acts of riots and sabotage,” according to security sources. The paper also reported Grapel tried to “plot discord between the people and the army” and was equipped with “communication devices, laptops, CDs, and flash memory.”

Photographs widely circulated in the Egyptian press show Grapel attending a protest in Tahrir Square, in an Israeli army uniform, addressing people with a microphone inside a mosque and sightseeing. Israeli news websites on Monday published what they said were old pictures of Grapel lying wounded in a hospital bed.

Israeli officials had not commented Monday on Grapel’s detention, issuing a blanket denial that any of their citizens have been detained in Egypt.

“These reports are false. So far we have not received any information from Egyptian authorities on an Israeli who has been arrested,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

In 2006, the New York Daily News 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. His Facebook profile lists Johns Hopkins as a network to which he belongs.

Grapel appears to have been traveling under his real name, and his connections to Israel were easy to find on the Internet, casting further doubt on the spying allegations.

Ties between Egypt and Israel have deteriorated following the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, especially after Egypt decided to open the Rafah crossing into the Palestinian Gaza strip last month.

-- Amro Hassan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo

Top photo: Egyptian front pages Monday pictured Ilan Grapel. Credit: Khaled Desouki / AFP/Getty Images.

Second photo: A picture of Ilan Grapel posted on his Facebook page and widely circulated in the Egyptian media. Credit: Facebook.

Video: Footage posted on the Egyptian newspaperAl Masry Al Youm’s websiteshows Ilan Grapel standing outside one of the police stations made famous when it was stormed by anti-government protesters on Jan. 28. Credit: Al Masry Al Youm.