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Turks Suspicious as Israel and Cyprus Forge Stronger Ties

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Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu with Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias in Nicosia on February 16. (Photo credit: Israel Prime Minister’s Office)Turkish Republic of N. Cyprus Accuses Israel of Airspace Incursion

A report published by Turkey’s state-run news agency on Sunday suggested Israel may be sending more than 20,000 Israeli commandos and 30,000 civilians to populate Greek Cyprus, as the two countries continue to cooperate in search of oil and gas deposits in the Mediterranean.

The Anatolia news agency said the commandos would be stationed to protect Israel’s energy activities in Cyprus. Ten thousand Israeli engineers and construction workers were to be sent over to Limassol to work on the drilling, and the Anatolia report estimated that these individuals, along with their families, would amount to roughly 30,000 people. 

“The Israelis are coming, and they are here to stay,” the Agency quoted a senior Cypriot official as having said, according to Israel National News.

The plans to deploy such large numbers on Greek Cypriot soil were apparently forged during a meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias held in mid-February.

At that time, Christofias allegedly asked Netanyahu to confine his activities in Cyprus to the Greek section. Turkey occupies the northern part of the country, but the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is lacks international recognition beyond Turkey.

During his meeting with Christofias, Netanyahu said he would be willing to pay for the entire joint drilling project to extract gas, so long as the work was performed solely by Israeli personnel— thus explaining the large numbers detailed by Anatolia.

A relationship between Israel and Cyprus has slowly developed as the two nations have collaborated in exploring the Mediterranean for energy resources. Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, the island nation’s foreign minister, told the American Jewish Committee’s annual Global Forum earlier this month that Cyprus provided Israel with the one reliable means of accessing its European allies.

“In Israel there is a growing sense that the only sure corridor toward friendly states lies to the West, in other words through Cyprus to the rest of Europe, and therefore the corridor must be kept open,” Kozakou-Marcoullis said, according to JTA.

The foreign minister added that her views were by no means exclusive.

“I think that it is fair to say that there are also others who read the geopolitical map in very similar ways at this time,” she explained. “One of them, I believe, is the United States.”

But as Israel and Cyprus have grown fond of one another, relations between Jerusalem and Ankara have continued to sour. When 29 companies submitted 15 bids in a Greek Cypriot tender for offshore drilling recently, Turkey responded with a warning.

“The companies which cooperate with GKRY (the Greek Cypriot administration) will not be included in energy projects in Turkey in the future,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Friday, according to the Jewish Press.

The GKRY was no less belligerent in its response to the FM’s remarks.

“[Cyprus condemns the] illegal and provocative attitude of Turkey, which seeks gunboat diplomacy to promote its expansionist designs in Cyprus,” the internationally recognized Cypriot state said in a statement.

Turkey has long grown upset with the joint Israel-Greek Cypriot energy ventures, since it feels entitled to exploitation of the same resources. But Nicosia has shown no signs of letting up, saying any oil and gas finds will be used to benefit all Cypriots, not just residents of the South.

The friction between Israel and Turkey largely began with the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May 2010. Israelis soldiers boarded a Gaza-bound vessel that had breached a blockade, and, while tussling with the Pro-Palestinian activists aboard the flotilla, killed nine. A series of investigations conducted by international arbiters and Israel found Israeli activity consistent with international law, but the Israeli-Turkish relations still have not experienced a revival since the incident.

On Monday, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus released a statement saying an Israeli aircraft had violated the TRNC’s airspace, the AFP reported. The unnamed aircraft allegedly trespassed on five occasions Monday, the army said in a statement, and a Turkish jet was forced to chase the aircraft away.

Israel has not responded to Turkey’s allegations, but has vehemently denied the dubious claims reported by the Anatolia concerning the deployment of roughly 50,000 Israelis in South Cyprus.
“These allegations are baseless and have no connection with reality,” the Israeli embassy in Ankara said on Monday, quoting a foreign ministry statement, according to the AFP. “Israel has never deployed troops on foreign soil.”

Greek Cyprus shed some light on Ankara’s possible motives for having fabricated the report.

“It is through such groundless leaks that Ankara seeks to justify its intransigence at the negotiating table, to blast the Cyprus peace talks and focus on so-called plan B’s, and to stoke tensions ahead of Cyprus’ assumption of the EU Presidency,” said acting government spokesman Christos Christofides on Monday, according to the Cyprus Mail.

Cyprus has been divided since a 1974 coup d’état backed by Greece, leading to a Turkish invasion and subsequent annexation of part of the island.

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