Not ‘our man in Cairo’ – some thoughts on Israel’s ‘Facebook spy’ held by Egypt
The man accused by Egyptian prosecutors of being a Mossad spy has been named as 27-year-old Ilan Grapel, a US/ Israeli citizen from Queens in NY who immigrated to Israel to join the army. He was wounded by Hezbollah gunmen during the Second Lebanon War, after which, according to some reports, he developed a passion for all things Arabic. During the protests that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak, Grapel posed as a journalist and joined the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It’s still unclear what he actually did during the protests, but photos of him holding protest placards have been disseminated by Egyptian media. Israel has denied that Grapel is an agent, and it seems very unlikely that he is. More likely Grapel was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time: a naive Israeli/ American idealist with a military background drawing attention to himself during an Arab revolution and with pictures of himself in IDF uniform posted on his Facebook page, prancing around revolutionary Cairo egging on Egyptian youth and generally making himself very conspicuous. Not exactly textbook Mossad behavior.
His arrest and the confusion surrounding his identity testify more to the chaos currently in play in the new Egypt than a real counterintelligence success for the Egyptian security services. The fact that he holds an American passport may yet save this young man’s skin.
But what a fascinating story this is. Israel’s first real tangle with post-Mubarak Egypt. It’s hard to believe that Egypt’s much vaunted Mukhabarat really believes they’ve caught a real Mossad spy in Ilan Grapel, but it seems clear that the new/old military regime in Cairo wants to gain some street cred with the swelling ranks of protestors filling Tahrir Square again – this time against the military, and the slow change of pace in the country of 80 million.
And what of Grapel himself? An immigrant living trying to live the dream that so many olim to Israel dream: make aliyah, join a combat unit, go to war, become a star on Israeli TV, and then go on to a dazzling career in the Mossad. For many olim, this is the dream. But for Ilan Grapel, the dream turned into a nightmare.
I would have felt sorry for this man had he not, according to various reports, posed as a journalist when he entered Egypt. Journalists hate it when non-journalists pose as journalists. It makes our jobs much, much harder. It makes traveling abroad on assignment more dangerous, especially if you’re like me, an Israeli journalist who likes to travel abroad from time to time on assignment. We are already treated with extreme suspicion, and stories like Grapel’s just add fuel to the fire. So thanks for that Ilan…
Just how much Ilan bought into the ‘ultimate aliya dream’ is evidenced by how much he wanted to serve in military intelligence. He really, desperately wanted to be in intelligence. He asked to be drafted into Military Intelligence even before making aliya. He studied Arabic. And all throughout his service in the Paratroopers Brigade he asked to be transferred to intelligence.
I respect his humanitarian and volunteering efforts, and his activity in breaching the gaps between Israelis and Arabs. I think more people should be like Ilan and learn Arabic, and travel to Arab countries and make friends. But please folks, don’t pose as reporters if you’re not reporters, and try not draw undue attention to yourself. You’ll actually end up causing more harm than good.