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Egypt swaps U.S.-Israeli citizen for 25 prisoners

JERUSALEM (AP) ― A U.S.-Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt as a suspected spy flew to freedom in Israel and into his mother’s arms on Thursday after more than four months in jail, after a prisoner swap deal that has eased friction between the two countries.

A smiling Ilan Grapel, 27, looked fit after his one-hour flight from Cairo landed at Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv. On the tarmac, his tearful mother, Irene, who had traveled to Israel from her home in Queens, New York, clasped him in her arms.

TV footage did not capture his comments, but the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, was heard telling him, “I’m very happy to see you here.”

Grapel was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Egypt traded the U.S.-born Grapel for 25 Egyptians, most of them smugglers, held in Israeli jails. The Egyptian prisoners passed through a land crossing from Israel as Grapel prepared to take off for Israel. TV broadcasts showed some of the Egyptian men kneeling to kiss the asphalt after crossing through a blue metal gate at the border crossing.

Israel denied the espionage allegations against Grapel, as did his family and friends, and his release helped to ease fears that relations would sour after Egypt’s longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in February. He was not charged.

Hours before the release, his father told the Associated Press that his son had been held in isolation in an unknown location and that when they last spoke two weeks ago, he seemed to be in “OK” condition and “getting fed.”

“I am happy that this thing will be done and over with and that he will be able to resume his normal life away from Egypt,” Daniel Grapel said in a telephone interview from his home in Queens, New York.

He said his son and wife would remain in Israel for at least two days to meet with Israeli and American officials before returning to the U.S.

Initially, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo had taken the lead in Grapel’s case because he had entered Egypt with his U.S. passport. A former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Eli Shaked, told Israel Radio that the U.S. was a main player in clinching the swap deal.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. “worked hard to bring (Grapel) home.” She added, “The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty is a vital element of regional peace and stability, and we strongly support both countries’ sustained commitment to its provisions.”

Grapel was volunteering at a legal aid group in Cairo that resettles refugees when he was arrested and accused of spying for Israel during the grass roots revolt that overthrew Mubarak.

He made no secret of his Israeli background, entered Egypt under his real name and his Facebook page had photos of him in an Israeli military uniform. Such openness about his identity suggested he was not a spy, and even in Egypt, where hostility toward Israel runs high, the arrest was widely ridiculed.

Grapel moved to Israel, where his grandparents live, as a young man. He did his compulsory military service in Israel during its 2006 war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and was wounded in the fighting. He later returned to the U.S. to study, and after his legal internship in Cairo, had planned to return to Emory University in Atlanta for his final year of law school.

Some Israelis have criticized their government for making a deal to free a citizen arrested in a friendly nation on what they think were trumped-up allegations.

Israel Hasson, an Israeli lawmaker dispatched to Israel to escort Grapel from Egypt, said the Israeli government was willing to free prisoners to defuse the situation. “This event could have developed into a crisis and we don’t think either country needs that,” Hasson told Israel Radio.

Since Mubarak was toppled, Egypt’s military rulers have often warned against what they call “foreign” attempts to destabilize the country. And like other Arab states, Egypt has a long history of blaming internal problems on Israel.

Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty _ the first between an Arab state and the Jewish one ― in 1979. Relations have been cool since, but Mubarak carefully upheld the pact.

While the military leaders who now rule Egypt have vowed to follow suit, they have unnerved Israel with overtures to Israel’s enemy, the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza, a tiny patch of Palestinian territory that borders both countries.

Those improved ties appear to have helped Egypt finally broker a long-elusive prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas last week, in which Israel traded hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who had been held by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years.