Web of prisoner exchange negotiations between US, Israel, Egypt and Hamas

Ahmed Eleiba , Wednesday 5 Oct 2011

Meeting between Tantawi and Panetta to decide the future of Grapel; Israeli security delegation to inspect embassy in Cairo; Hamas denies ties with the former German mediator and deal for exchange of prisoners


Spies, prisoners and detainees are issues at play on many levels between the US, Israel, Egypt and Hamas these days. As US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta arrived in Cairo amid assurances that Israeli-American citizen and suspected spy Ilan Grapel will be released, an independent Israeli security delegation arrived in Egypt to inspect the offices of the Israeli embassy in Cairo. At the same time, Gerhard Konrad, former German mediator on the exchange of prisoners between Hamas and Israel, was also visiting Cairo.

In an interview with Ahram Online, Major General Sameh Seif El-Yazel, an expert on national security issues, said that with these issues at play, there should be a breakthrough on all levels. But this is not a result of flexibility by Egyptian mediators, but rather awareness that a prisoner exchange would be beneficial for Egypt. Al-Yazel said Cairo’s position changed after the intervention of US President Barack Obama – Egypt had been upset with the position of the US Congress after one member proposed to block aid to Egypt.

A final decision will be postponed until after a meeting today between the Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Field-Marshal Tantawi and his deputy, Lieutenant General Sami Anan, with US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta. They will discuss the release of Grapel in return for the release of 25 prisoners in Israeli jails (out of 80 who were mostly convicted of national security crimes and infiltrating the border), as well as – perhaps fewer – Egyptians behind bars in the US, according to informed sources.

It is yet unclear if Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman – the leader of the Egyptian Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya – will be among the Egyptians released. His son, Abdel-Rahman, told Ahram Online over the phone that his family had filed a request with the military council to include his father on the list of those returning, but no one has contacted them.

Al-Yazel said that such a deal goes beyond exchanging prisoners, and perhaps could open the door for discussions on national security, defence measures and armaments. While this was possible before, “now there is a desire by both sides to hold a more critical dialogue about issues that were previously probed infrequently. It would not do Egypt any good to keep the spy behind bars when there can be more benefits – this is standard procedure on such matters in most countries.”

According to Israeli media, Tel Aviv has recalled its reserves and has advanced as far as the Egyptian border. Official Egyptian sources told Ahram Online that following recent terrorist attacks, “Israel is paranoid about security on its border after a rise in border infiltrations and suicide operations, probably from the Gaza Strip, who cross through underground border tunnels back and forth between Israel and Egypt.”

Meanwhile, a five-man Israeli security delegation arrived in Cairo, led by the Israeli embassy’s head of security, to inspect embassy offices and decide on the prospect of keeping the same location or moving somewhere else. Many sources said the climate is now much calmer in the vicinity of the embassy; this could mean the Israeli diplomatic mission will return to work soon.

Meanwhile, Konrad was in Egypt, as Egypt now takes the lead on the exchange of prisoners between Hamas and Israel. Egyptian and Palestinian sources denied any ties to a possible deal; Cairo is working on the issue by itself whereas Hamas and Israeli officials sit in adjacent rooms and Egyptian mediators go back and forth between them. Sources emphasised that Egypt is still waiting for an Israeli response on the last session held months ago in Cairo.

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