ATLANTA — As a trilingual ex-Israeli soldier, Ilan Grapel was an adventurous law school student in Georgia. He took an internship in Egypt last summer to offer legal help to asylum seekers, and he heard stories of people being held captive by secret police. He never thought he would have a similar experience.
The 28-year-old Emory University law student spent more than four months in an Egyptian jail after he was accused of being a spy from Israel, which has long had cool relations with Egypt. He was released in late October as part of a swap that freed 25 Egyptians in Israel, and is returning to Atlanta to finish his legal education.
“I was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken into custody,” he said, adding that others he interviewed during his internship had it worse. “They were tortured,” he said.
Grapel was born in the U.S. and moved to Israel as a young man. He holds citizenship in both countries and studied Arabic in Cairo. He did his compulsory military service in Israel during its 2006 war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and was wounded in the fighting.
He returned to the U.S. to study, graduating from Johns Hopkins University.
When he went to Egypt, he made no secret of his background, entering the country under his real name. The second year law student was in a school-sponsored internship to help asylum seekers from Sudan and Iraq.
He took part in pro-democracy protests, and Egyptian authorities said he was spotted carrying a protest sign at a rally in June. Grapel told them he wasn’t a spy, just a student who worked in his spare time to “dispel myths of Israelis as the embodiment of evil.”
“I wasn’t on an independent mission to convert the Arab nation,” he said.
He was at a hostel June 12 when about two dozen Egyptian security officers burst in. They brought him to a cramped cell with a bed, a chair and a window with bars. For two weeks, he was interrogated daily. He said he didn’t know what Egyptians considered to be his crime.
After the inquiries, he was held in near isolation for the next four months while U.S. and Israeli officials negotiated his release. He wasn’t physically tortured, but the solitary confinement was excruciating.
“The uncertainty was terrible. I was looking at life sentences, and I didn’t know how plausible it was,” Grapel said.
His captivity was another strain in the tense relationship between Israel and Egypt. After President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, Egypt’s new military leaders vowed to uphold the 1979 peace treaty but they have taken a tougher stance on Israel and grown closer to its enemy, the Hamas militant group.
After he was released as part of the prisoner swap, he spent a few weeks with family in New York before returning to Atlanta. Looking back, he said, he doesn’t have any regrets.
“It is illogical to regret working in Egypt because I was there for justified reasons,” he said. “One would never ask me to regret joining the army knowing in retrospect that I would be injured.”
He’s now considering a career in academia or science and might write a book about his experience. He won’t be returning to Egypt anytime soon, but he does have an offering for the rank-and-file Egyptian guards who kept him captive: His forgiveness.
“They were not responsible for signing the arrest warrants,” he said. “They grew up in a brainwashed society. It’s hard to blame someone for being brainwashed.”