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Cyprus Emphasizes Neutrality Following Hezbollah Threat Amid Israel Conflict

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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. Diplomats fear these tensions are bringing the two sides to the brink of a fully-fledged war.

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

Nasrallah warned on Wednesday of a war “without rules or ceilings” and highlighted the dangers of a full-scale Israeli offensive against his Iran-aligned organization.

He also unexpectedly threatened Cyprus, stating: “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.” He further vowed that in the event of a broader conflagration, “there will be no place safe from our missiles and our drones.”

Nervousness in Nicosia was not limited to government officials. Western diplomats stationed in the divided island’s internationally recognized south also expressed concern about 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.

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

Scores of vessels carrying aid have traveled to Gaza from the southern Cypriot port of Larnaca since March. However, in a conflict where perceptions play an equally vital role, the island’s alignment with Israel and its 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 Defense 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.” 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 emphasized 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 analysts suggested 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.

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.

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