Two months ago several Egyptians were arrested near an important military base in the Negev after they crossed into the country illegally. The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service refuse to allow information on the matter to be reported. Seventy-three other Egyptians are being held in Israeli prisons, 27 of whom are there for security-related violations - involvement in terrorism or espionage. The rest are suspected or have been convicted of criminal activity.
These prisoners could have been used in a prisoner exchange, and not for Gilad Shalit. Another Israeli is being held in an Arab prison, this time, in Egypt. His problem is that his name is Ouda Tarabin and he is a Bedouin, so it's easy for the authorities and Israeli public to forget him.
Tarabin, 28, is a shepherd and member of the Tarabin tribe, which is spread throughout the Negev and Sinai. His sister lives in El Arish in Sinai, and 10 years ago he visited her.
At the end of the trip, at the border crossing, an Egyptian border-guard officer confiscated his passport and warned him never to return to Egypt. Tarabin did not heed the warning. In late 1999 he sneaked into Sinai from the Negev, without a passport, for another visit to his sister.
A family member gave him up to the Egyptian authorities. He was arrested and interrogated on suspicion of holding counterfeit money. He was later transferred for interrogation by Military Intelligence.
Tarabin claims that during the investigation an Egyptian officer told him he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying for Israel. As far as it has been possible to corroborate, Israeli security officials deny that Tarabin was an agent.
Nine years have passed since Tarabin was imprisoned. Today he is being held at Tura Prison near Cairo.
His conditions are reasonable. He receives some money from his family, which lets him buy items at the prison canteen. In his cell, where he is alone, he has a radio and television, and once every few weeks he is visited by embassy representatives and his attorney, Yitzhak Meltzer.
His lawyer and family are trying, through defense officials and the Foreign Ministry, to gain access to the trial's transcript, but have failed.
This raises suspicions that there has been no trial, and that the sentence was imposed by the Egyptian intelligence officer.
Meltzer and Tarabin's family have also asked ministers, MKs and senior defense officials to show interest in the case, with little success.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni when she was foreign minister, and Shas chairman Eli Yishai raised the issue during meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. In some meetings, Mubarak's comments suggested he thought Tarabin had already been released.
As far as is known, Israel has never offered Egypt an exchange deal: Tarabin for some Egyptians held here. As one senior Foreign Ministry officials said privately, "Efforts in his case are in slow motion because we are afraid of embarrassing Egypt."
The family and Meltzer feel that everything done so far has been limited to formalities, and Benjamin Netanyahu's government is even less interested in the case than its predecessors.
Their appeal to Netanyahu's advisers and National Security Council chief Uzi Arad went without a response.
It's fair to assume that if Ouda Tarabin's name were, for example, Ido Tamir, the Israeli government, Knesset, defense establishment, media and public would be doing a lot more to gain his release.
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