The 25 Egyptian detainees, released by Israel, wave national flags during a welcoming ceremony after their arrival at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel on October 27, 2011 (Photo by: Reuters)
North Sinai Governor Abdel Wahab Mabrouk on Tuesday denied that there were still any Egyptian political prisoners in Israeli jails, asserting that the last such prisoner had been released in 1982.
Mabrouk added, however, that the Egyptian government was in the process of collecting data on Egyptian nationals detained in Israel on criminal charges – and the jail terms they were currently serving – with a view to negotiating their eventual release with the Israeli government.
Dozens of relatives of the more than 60 Egyptians currently incarcerated in Israel began a sit-in on Saturday to demand the release of their loved ones. As the sit-in entered its fifth day on Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Multinational Forces and Observers, which is mandated with monitoring the peace between the two countries in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
Last October, Egypt released a US-Israeli dual citizen suspected by authorities of spying for Israel in exchange for 25 Egyptians detained by Israel. The move represented the largest prisoner swap between the two countries since 1948.
US-Israeli national Ilan Grapel was arrested last June on suspicions that he had tried to recruit agents inside Egypt to monitor events in post-revolution Egypt. Both Grapel and Tel Aviv strenuously denied the accusations at the time.
Most of the Egyptian prisoners that were subsequently released had been jailed for drug trafficking, "infiltration" into Israel or gun-running, but not for espionage activities or attacks on Israelis, the Israeli Prison Service stated upon their release.
"Egyptian authorities fulfilled the first part of the swap deal, promising that more prisoners would be released in a second phase," said Mostafa El-Atrash, coordinator of a popular campaign for freeing Egyptian prisoners in Israel. "But they're dragging their feet on the second part, which calls for the repatriation of all Egyptian prisoners still languishing in Israeli jails."
Upon Grapel's release, Israel called for a second prisoner swap by which Israeli national Oudeh Suleiman Tarabin – jailed by Egypt more than one decade ago – would be released in exchange for Egyptian prisoners in Israel.
In December, Israeli sources said there had been "significant progress" in negotiations between Tel Aviv and Cairo aimed at implementing another prisoner exchange that would include Tarabin.
In February, however, Israel Radio reported that the Israeli government was "disappointed" with Egypt's position on the proposed prisoner swap deal. The report came in the wake of a visit to Cairo by an envoy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a high-ranking Israeli military commander.
The relatives of Egyptians still jailed in Israel, meanwhile, plan to maintain their sit-in until the release of their loved ones.
"The Egyptian government doesn't move except under pressure or when the crisis escalates," read a statement issued by those staging the sit-in.
According to El-Atrash, many of the Egyptians released by Israel in October had already completed their sentences, while others were serving harsh sentences for relatively innocuous crimes such as smuggling cigarettes.
"If the government had provided decent employment for these young men, they wouldn't have got involved in smuggling," he said. "Now they're paying a double price for the government's negligence."