Cyprus stresses neutrality after Hezbollah threat over Israel war

<span>The Cypriot president, Nikos Christodoulides, in Brussels this week. After the Hezbollah threat he sought to emphasise the island’s policy of neutrality.</span><span>Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA</span>
The Cypriot president, Nikos Christodoulides, in Brussels this week. After the Hezbollah threat he sought to emphasise the island’s policy of neutrality.Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Cypriots have reacted with shock after threats from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah that Cyprus could become a target if it allows Israel to use its territory in any conflict between the two sides, who diplomats fear are on the brink of a fully fledged war.

Despite the EU expressing unreserved support for its easternmost member, it was clear on Thursday that the Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s warning had set off alarm bells in Nicosia where officials insisted the island republic remained a “pillar of peace” in an otherwise volatile region.

“Cyprus is not involved, and will not be involved, in any war or conflicts,” the Cypriot government spokesperson, Konstantinos Letymbiotis, told the public broadcaster CyBC. “Therefore, the statements made by the Hezbollah leader do not correspond with reality.”

He said Cyprus had “excellent” relations with Lebanon and it would not allow any state to use its territory for military operations against another.

Nasrallah had warned on Wednesday of a war “without rules or ceilings” as he sought to highlight the perils of a full-scale Israeli offensive against his Iran-aligned organisation.

Taking many by surprise, he also threatened Cyprus, saying: “Opening Cypriot airports and bases to the Israeli enemy to target Lebanon would mean that the Cypriot government is part of the war, and the resistance [Hezbollah] will deal with it as part of the war.”

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In the event of a broader conflagration “there will be no place safe from our missiles and our drones,” Nasrallah vowed.

Nervousness in Nicosia was not limited to government officials. Western diplomats stationed in the divided island’s internationally recognised south also voiced dismay at the spectre of Cyprus, a popular tourist destination and barely a 40-minute flight away from Tel Aviv, being drawn into the Middle East tumult if a fully fledged war erupted between the two foes.

“Hezbollah has a history of acting on its threats,” said one EU envoy. “Hezbollah knows Cyprus does not have the military capability to respond and in that respect it’s an easy target.”

Within hours of Nasrallah issuing the threat, the Cypriot president, Nikos Christodoulides, sought to emphasise the island’s policy of neutrality, underscoring the role it had played in establishing a sea corridor to transfer humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“Cyprus is not part of the problem … [it] is part of the solution,” he said. “And 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.”

Scores of vessels carrying aid have travelled to Gaza under the initiative from the southern Cypriot port of Larnaca since March. But in a conflict where perceptions play an equally vital role, the island’s alignment with Israel and ever improving relations with the US have also been noticed by Hezbollah’s leadership.

Nicosia’s approach was for years more pro-Arab than pro-Israeli. Deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey and the discovery of gas reserves off the Israeli coast have paved the way for an energy alliance and much closer ties.

The two countries share intelligence and increasingly close military links. Two years ago the Israel Defence Forces used Cyprus to stage war games simulating combat in Lebanon, involving what was said to be the largest ever number of troops sent abroad by Israel. The drills focused on possible invasion tactics, the island having been picked for the exercises because of the similarity of its terrain with that of Lebanon.

Last year armed forces from both nations conducted military exercises on the island “to respond to particularly demanding operational scenarios”.

“Both were seen as a provocation by Hezbollah,” said another diplomat. “And we know that Christodoulides was told as much when he visited Beirut with EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen in May.”

By virtue of its location, Cyprus is often involved in events beyond its borders. In 2006 Cyprus became a transit hub for the evacuation of more than 30,000 foreign nationals fleeing war in Lebanon, and last year thousands of British passport holders were airlifted from Sudan to the country.

Although not known to offer any land or base facilities to the Israeli military, Cyprus has allowed Israel to use its airspace to conduct drills simulating an Iranian attack on Israel.

Earlier this year protests were staged outside one of Cyprus’s two British military bases – retained by London after the Cypriots won independence in 1960 – over concerns that the installations were being used by the US and UK to send military aid to Israel. RAF Akrotiri was previously used by UK forces in the air campaign against Islamic State.

On Thursday Cypriot officials emphasised that under the treaty of establishment, Britain was not obliged to inform Nicosia about movements on the bases.

Political analysts have described Nasrallah’s inflammatory rhetoric as “classic deterrence” but also said it was a warning of how bad the situation could get if the conflict escalates. Some said it was likely to spur Greece, which also enjoys excellent ties with Israel, to implore its ally to give peace a chance before launching an offensive against Hezbollah.

“The Cypriots would never allow their facilities or territory to be used by Israel for armed confrontation because they know it would seriously harm their relations with all other countries in the region,” said Prof Hubert Faustmann, who teaches history and political science at the University of Nicosia. “Hezbollah also knows that if it acts on its threat and attacks Cyprus, the EU and Nato would very likely be brought into the conflict which it doesn’t want either.”

But for the EU’s nearest state to the unfolding theatre of war, the unprecedented threat could not be ignored. “This is the first serious challenge and the price Cyprus might have to pay for the pro-Israeli shift it has made in the last years,” Faustmann said.