The prisoner-swap deal between Egypt and Israel that sent Israeli Ouda Tarabin back to Tel Aviv in exchange for the release of a number of Egyptians, some of them convicted of drug smuggling, has sparked a wave of controversy amongst Egyptians, amid some Israeli voices claiming it was not a swap at all.
Tarabin is a 34-year-old Arab Bedouin from the Negev Desert in Israel who was arrested in 2000, and convicted of spying after illegally crossing the Egypt-Israel border. Just 19-years-old when he was first arrested, he was very near the end of his sentence when he was released on 10 December.
According to Egyptian authorities, in return for Tarabin, the Israeli government has released two Egyptian prisoners who were held in Israel.
“At the same time, Israel released two Egyptian citizens who were imprisoned in Israel and completed their sentences,” a statement from the Israeli prime minister’s office confirmed.
Several news reports have claimed that four more Egyptian prisoners are being prepared for release as part of the deal.
News that Tarabin and the Egyptian prisoners have either completed their prison sentences or were very close to finishing their terms raised questions over whether this really was a prisoner swap. Several Israeli officials are saying Tarabin was released after the completion of his prison sentence, while the Egyptian authorities are saying he was released early – making the deal a genuine prisoner swap.
Yitzhak Levanon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Cairo from 2009 until 2011, said Egyptian state-owned media are presenting Tarabin’s release as a success for the Egyptian government.
He added that Tarabin’s official release date was 23 December, just 13 days after his actual release. In this case, his release cannot be considered a grand gesture by the Egyptians.
In addition, Zvi Mazel, Israel’s sixth ambassador to Egypt and now a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Jerusalem Post that the Egyptian government wanted to be perceived by its own people as releasing a spy and receiving two Egyptian prisoners in return.
Security analyst Khaled Okasha, however, rejected the Israeli allegations, asserting that it is a genuine swap. “Even if their prison term was about to end, it should still be considered as an exchange of prisoners,” Okasha told Daily News Egypt.
“Egypt wouldn’t have set the Israeli prisoner free, even if he had finished his term. And the same goes for the Israeli side,” Okasha explained.
There is a “concealed hostility” between the two countries that makes them opt not to release the prisoners even after finishing their terms, according to Okasha.
He described the Israeli comments denying the swap as an attempt to “deny the Egyptian efforts” to release their prisoners. “Israel has been involved in several prisoner exchange deals before, and no one ever said that it was a pretence,” Okasha said.
Israel has previously held exchange deals with several countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Palestine.
According to the Israel Prison Service website, three of the Egyptian prisoners to be released from Israel were convicted of smuggling drugs. The drug-smuggling news has stirred local public opinion, with some voices questioning the criteria used in selecting prisoners in swap deals.
However, Okash defends Egypt’s right to choose which Egyptian prisoners it wants set free: “There are no fixed criteria for exchanging prisoners; each case is dealt with separately. Also, being drug dealers doesn’t strip them from their Egyptian nationality.”
He added that countries don’t reveal the reasons behind the prisoners selected for exchange deals, adding that Egypt may have various reasons for feeling that it would benefit from having certain prisoners returned.
“It is not anybody’s business to know the reasons behind the choice. They should remain a secret,” Okasha said.
Israel has previously tried to secure the release of Tarabin on several occasions. The last was in 2012, when the negotiations to release him in exchange for 67 Egyptian prisoners in Israel failed.
“In their mind, they thought because we were willing to release 67 prisoners for one guy that he must be a spy,” said Mazel. Both Israel and Tarabin have repeatedly denied the charges that he spied for Israel.
The recent Tarabin deal is the latest in a list of prisoner exchanges between the two countries over several decades. The latest swap involved Ilan Grapel in October 2011. Grapel, a law student with dual US and Israeli citizenship, was jailed for five months on accusations of recruiting spies, before being released in exchange for 25 Egyptian prisoners.
Among the most important releases was that of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1997 after being convicted of espionage. Azzam was released in 2004 in return for six Egyptian students accused of sneaking into Israel with the intention of kidnapping Israeli soldiers.