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'Unprecedented': Why Hezbollah threatened to attack Cyprus

Cyprus and Greece have deepened military and economic cooperation with Israel in recent years, and Israeli special forces train on the island
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah speaking on 19 June 2024 (Al-Manar/AFP)
By Sean Mathews in Athens

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Wednesday threatened an attack on Cyprus, raising fears that a full-fledged war between Israel and Hezbollah could ripple across the Eastern Mediterranean.

"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 will deal with it as part of the war," Nasrallah threatened.

Nasrallah's comments are likely to send a shockwave not just through Cyprus, an ethnically divided island nation, but also Greece, a close ally of Nicosia and Israel.

“It’s an unprecedented military threat,” Gabriel Haritos, a Jerusalem-based expert on Cypriot-Israeli ties at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (Eliamep), told Middle East Eye.

“Hezbollah is not far away at all. If they can target the outskirts of Tel Aviv then they can hit Cyprus. It’s not something that can be excluded,” Haritos said.

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Nasrallah’s threat against Cyprus came as its foreign minister, Constantinos Kombos, wrapped up a meeting on Monday in Washington with his counterpart Antony Blinken.

“Cyprus is an important player in the region, and a partnership for the United States that we deeply value,” Blinken said.

Since 7 October, Cyprus has emerged as a hub for US special forces. US Naval Special Warfare Operators conducted joint training with Cypriot counterparts this year. Cyprus also actively billed itself as a staging ground for aid into Gaza and the Port of Larnaca has been the first point of entry for aid traveling to the US-built pier in Gaza. 

'Abraham Accords on the Med'

Nasrallah’s message to Cyprus suggests that Hezbollah has been watching with concern Israel and the US’s deepening relationship with the Eastern Mediterranean island nation that sits just 260km off the coast of Lebanon.

“Hezbollah is clearly frustrated that Cyprus has signed a strategic cooperation pact with the Americans,” Constantinos Filis, director of the Institute of Global Affairs in Athens, told MEE. 

In the last decade, Israel has grown increasingly close to both Cyprus and Greece. The former is split between a mainly Greek internationally recognised government in the south and a Turkish-Cypriot government in the north recognised only by Ankara.

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The decision of Arab states like the UAE and Morocco to normalise ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords eclipsed Israel’s burgeoning relations with Greece and Cyprus, but their newfound cohesion has been quietly impacting the Eastern Mediterranean.

Cyprus was a founding member of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which sought to deepen energy cooperation with Israel and Arab states, amid maritime tensions with Turkey. Last year, Cyprus pushed to cement its energy ties with Israel by lobbying for a new gas pipeline between the two, MEE reported.

Cyprus, like Greece, has also benefitted from an influx of Israeli real estate investment in recent years, ironically, along with renewed interest from Lebanese investors.

With fighting in Gaza and along the border with Lebanon raging, Israel has tapped its strategic ties to Cyprus for military purposes. 

'A clever move'

Israel's air force has reportedly also used Cypriot airspace to conduct a drill simulating the scenario of an Iranian attack on Israel.

But Cyprus has been cooperating with Israel on security for years.

'Cyprus will be extremely worried and [with] Greece will create some pressure on Israel'

- Michael Harari, Israel’s former ambassador to Cyprus

Since 2021, it has participated with Greece and the US in annual naval exercises under the moniker "Noble Dina". They also conducted largescale naval exercises in 2023 that saw Israeli naval fleets sail to Cyprus.

Israeli special forces also train in Cyprus where the rocky terrain resembles Lebanon.

Michael Harari, Israel’s former ambassador to Cyprus, told Middle East Eye that Nasrallah’s threat against the island suggested it was concerned Israel was on the verge of launching an operation.

Middle East Eye reported on Wednesday, that US envoy Amos Hochstein told Lebanese officials that the US would back an Israeli offensive on Lebanon after five weeks if there was no halt to daily fighting between the Iran-backed group and Israel.

“Throwing Cyprus into the mix means Nasrallah is under pressure and believes Israel may go ahead with an attack,” Harari said.

“It's a clever move,” he added, “because he knows Cyprus will be extremely worried and Greece will create some pressure on Israel about an attack on Lebanon.”

Arms embargo lifted

Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily fire since 8 October, but the conflict ratcheted up last week after Israel killed Taleb Sami Abdullah, one of the most senior members of Hezbollah. The group responded by launching hundreds of drones and rockets at Israel.

Cyprus’s growing alignment with Israel is part of Nicosia’s wider realignment with the West, as it positions itself as a pro-US bulwark in the Eastern Mediterranean.

'Cyprus does not have an army able to conduct operations against Hezbollah'

- Gabriel Haritos, Eliamep

In 2018, it signed a bilateral security cooperation statement and in 2022, US President Joe Biden's administration lifted a decades-old arms embargo on the island.

Despite this, Haritos told MEE that Cyprus would feel exposed to any threat from Hezbollah.

“Cyprus does not have an army able to conduct operations against Hezbollah,” he said.

Cyprus's burgeoning relations with Israel marks an extraordinary change since its independence from British colonial rule in 1960 when the country's then-leader, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Makarios III, welcomed figures like Gamal Abdel Nasser and the island openly embraced Palestinian resistance fighters. 

For years, Cyprus harboured anti-Americanism over lingering frustration that the US quietly backed Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island after a failed coup attempt to unite it with Greece. Turkey maintains more than 35,000 troops in occupied northern Cyprus.

Filis said Hezbollah believes Cyprus is vulnerable because of those geopolitical tensions. 

“Nasrallah sees Cyprus as the weakest link in the eastern Mediterranean balance of power because it has no real military and is under pressure from Turkey." 

"He is saying if you help Israel there will be ramifications."

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