Awkward foes: The Cyprus-Israel-Lebanon relationship

Israel and Cyprus enjoy close bilateral relations, particularly in the areas of defence and intelligence. [Getty}

On Wednesday, head of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah’s speech took an unexpected turn: He directly addressed the government of Cyprus and threatened that it would be considered a warring party if it allowed Israel to use its harbours and airports in the event of a war with Lebanon.

The threat took the international community and the Cypriot government by surprise; the latter did not realize it was involved in the ongoing war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides was quick to emphasise the island’s neutrality and its role in trying to alleviate suffering caused by Israel’s war on Gaza.

“Cyprus is not part of the problem. Our role, as manifested, for example, through the humanitarian corridor [to Gaza], is recognised not only by the Arab world but by the entire international community,” Christodoulides said on Wednesday.

Analysts said that Hezbollah’s threats should be read as a greater threat against the EU, rather than just towards Cyprus.

“Nasrallah wants to deliver a message to these countries and to the EU in general … that if the war on Gaza continues it will lead to the outbreak of a war on the Lebanon-Israel border which will affect the union,” Eva Koulouriotis, a Cypriot Middle East expert, told The New Arab.

The European Union put out a statement warning that an attack on Cyprus would be an attack on the union itself.

“The EU is Cyprus and Cyprus is the EU,” Peter Stano, the EU spokesperson, said.

Hezbollah’s threats, however, highlighted the awkward role that Cyprus has been thrust into as the easternmost country in the EU, just a thirty-minute flight from Lebanon and Israel.

Proximity to Israel

Cyprus has grown closer to Israel in recent years, entering into a quasi-alliance with both Athens and Tel Aviv in 2010.

Bilateral relations between the two countries have continued to strengthen since, with Cyprus seeking assurances from Israel against its Turkish occupier, and Israel seeking a friendly face in a region where it has few allies.

Bilateral relations grew even stronger after Cyprus found an offshore natural gas deposit in 2011 – something which provoked Turkey to be more vocal about its claims to the island. Cyprus turned to Israel for help in exploiting the reservoir, as well as a new ally to help protect its newly found natural resource boon.

Defence and intelligence are the major areas of cooperation between the two countries.

Cyprus allows Israeli special forces to train alongside its troops in the country, as well has allowed the Israeli military to train in the Trodos mountain range since at least 2017. The mountainous region is similar to Lebanon’s topography.

Cyprus also buys defence technology from Israel, buying Israeli drones in 2019 to monitor its waters for Turkish violations of its territorial waters.

It has signed a deal with Israel to purchase its Iron Dome defence system and in 2022 commissioned Israeli Elbit Systems to create a monitoring system on its land border with Turkish-occupied Cyprus.

According to a 2023 European Union Commission on spyware, Cyprus has also hosted Israeli companies such as the NSO Group which create and sell hacking software products. One such hacking software, Predator, allows private individuals and governments to hack cell-phones and has been used to target civil society activists worldwide.

Since 7 October, the island has also become an attractive destination for Israelis and Lebanese alike seeking some stability away from their warring countries. Wealthy individuals from both countries have bought up large amounts of real estate in the Cypriot cities of Limassol, Larnaca and Paphos.

Media reports in March also indicated interest from Israel to purchase a terminal in the Larnaca port as a safeguard in case the Haifa port was damaged in a war with Lebanon. A delegation from Israel’s transport ministry was set to visit the port to look into the potential purchase.

There is no public information that Israel has used or is planning to use airbases in Cyprus in attacks on Lebanon. Cypriot officials also denied this accusation on Wednesday.

However, the British and French maintain airbases in Cyprus – the former’s presence mandated by the independence treaty negotiated during British decolonisation of the island in 1960.

The British and French reportedly used these airbases to shoot down Iranian missiles heading towards Israel on 14 April, which Iran said was in retaliation for Israel’s targeting of its consulate in Damascus.

“Nicosia does not have the power to prevent the French or the British from using its bases if they have a role in this war. We might witness more visits from Nicosia to Lebanon to [clarify] that position,” Koulouriotis said.

Lebanon and Cyprus: A close bilateral relationship

Historically, Cyprus has served as a safe haven for Lebanese as their own country underwent invasions and civil wars. Thousands of Lebanese refugees fled to Cyprus during its 1975 civil war, and again in the 2006 July war with Israel.

Informed by their own experiences with displacement during the 1974 Turkish invasion, the Cypriots welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from Lebanon.

The two countries also have strong-person-to-person contact, with many Lebanese maintaining properties in the coastal cities of Cyprus, particularly after Lebanon’s 2019 economic crisis.

Cyprus is also notorious for being the marriage destination of choice for many Lebanese who want a civil marriage, rather than the religious option available to them in Lebanon.

In recent years, the countries’ relationship has mostly focused on the Cyprus urging Lebanon to stem the flow of migrants coming across the Mediterranean to Cypriot shores.

However, the two countries enjoy good relations, with Cypriot President Christodoulides visiting Lebanon twice in the last year.

Following Hezbollah’s threats on Wednesday, the Foreign Minister of Lebanon and the Cypriot Foreign Minister spoke by phone, discussing the two countries’ close historical ties.

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