When I went to Egypt to spend the summer working at a nongovernmental organization that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers from Sudan and Iraq, I was no stranger to the Middle East. I had studied Arabic in Cairo and spent more than two years in the Israel Defense Forces. I hoped that my summer would prove that my Zionist ideals could coexist with support for the right of human migration and sanctuary. I also hoped to convince the Arabs I met that my Zionism did not have to be antithetical to their interests and that we could work together for peace.It looks like my early impression of Grapel was right on the money. He's dangerously naive.
But in post-revolutionary Egypt, my attempts to educate and interact with the local population led to my arrest, to solitary confinement and eventually to the threat of five simultaneous life imprisonments for “espionage” and “incitement.”
On previous visits, the friendships I developed overpowered the omnipresent anti-Israel propaganda of the Arab world. Some former adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood actually wished me luck when I left to do reserve duty in Israel. Most Egyptians I met and chatted with over coffee ended our conversations by admitting to holding misconceptions about Israelis. This reinforced my hopes for common ground.
So during the summer I emphasized my Israeli background, even when I entered Egypt as an American. I identified as a Zionist Israeli to all of my Egyptian friends, taught them Hebrew and showed them Israeli movies. In return, I received lessons in Arabic, Islam and Egyptian culture.
Some who do not know me considered my actions peculiar or harmful. But that condemnation only underscores a particular abyss into which the Middle East conflict has descended since once-influential Zionists and Egyptians considered cooperation to be beneficial, as did the early Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Dawood Barakat, the former editor of the Egyptian daily al-Ahram.
On June 12, two dozen state security officials barged into my hostel room, handcuffed and blindfolded me, and transported me to their general prosecutor.
People ask, “Were you scared?” I was terrified and confused. Over time I also became angry and lonely. The initial 14 days were the “best” part of my imprisonment because there was at least human interaction. The prosecutor and I bantered about politics, religion and the Middle East conflict. The conversations were jovial, mostly innocuous, save for some random accusations: “Security reports inform us that you were smuggling weapons from Libyan revolutionaries into Egypt,” or my favorite — but perhaps irrelevant — charge: “Ilan, you used your seductive powers to recruit Egyptian women and that is a crime.”
...Was my trip reckless or “wrong”? No. Despite the peril, the U.S. government sends Peace Corps volunteers to volatile regions because of the benefit of grass-roots diplomacy. Hasbara, the Hebrew term that refers to efforts to explain the Israeli viewpoint, has much to gain from such a strategy, given the pernicious myths about Israel and Jews prevalent in much of the Arab world.
My hasbara provided a viewpoint that changed the mentalities of former Muslim Brotherhood members, the prosecutor and my guards, whose last words were “Shalom, we hope you forgive us.” Israelis and Arabs can continue to maintain the status quo of mutual avoidance or they can dare to coexist. To those who wrongly held me, I say simply, I forgive you.
Of course most Arabs are friendly on an individual basis. That doesn't mean that every Israeli or Jew in an Arab country is safe!
It is one thing to work for coexistence in an official capacity, where you know that you are backed by an organization or government that provides some level of protection. But for a Jew - and former IDF soldier - to go into a country where anti-semitism and Israel hatred is off the charts, in your own personal capacity, is simply stupid.
Not only that, but Grapel did not even address the circumstances of his release. He was traded for 25 Egyptian prisoners in Israeli jails. Even though none of them were said to be security prisoners, Grapel has established a precedent where hostile countries (or cold peace partners) can arrest any Israeli citizen under any pretext, and expect to get something concrete in return.
Also, besides the released prisoners, Grapel's reckless decisions reportedly has netted Egypt with F-16 fighter jets.
Starry-eyed peaceniks can endanger many people with their idealism.
And Grapel is clueless as to why this might be a problem.