Cyprus and Israel: Lessons From the Pursuit of Lasting Peace in the Eastern Mediterranean

Cyprus and Israel: Lessons From the Pursuit of Lasting Peace in the Eastern Mediterranean

. 8 min read

The Eastern Mediterranean features two salient territorial crises: those of Israel and Cyprus. Both conflicts are politically driven and feature strong convictions by all parties, but violence and armed confrontations are extremely rare in Cyprus, while being a constant in Israel.

Historical Contexts

Tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots began to rise in 1955, when British rule of the island ended and Greek Cypriots aimed to unite the island with Greece. Following a Greek coup attempt in 1974, Turkey launched an invasion of Cyprus, and ultimately occupied just over a third of the country. By the time of the ceasefire, the invading Turks had reached the capital of Nicosia, and established a line across the entire island. Today, the final positions of the belligerents of the conflict are reflected in the “Green Line,” a UN-controlled buffer zone extending 180 kilometers across the island. To the north is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a de facto state recognized by only Turkey, and to the south is the Republic of Cyprus, which has only de jure control of the northern half.  

The end of British rule in Israel similarly catalyzed escalating tensions. In 1947, the end of British rule in Mandatory Palestine—land that now encompasses both the state of Israel and Palestinian territory—loomed near, and plans for dividing the region began to be drafted. UN Resolution 181, an early partition plan from 1947, called for ceding 55 percent of the land for a Jewish state, in territory which was 33 percent Jewish by population and 7 percent Jewish in terms of land ownership. The resolution was agreed to by the Jewish community in Palestine, but rejected by the Arab community. Violence erupted after the General Assembly approved the resolution, resulting in the expulsion of between 750,000 and 1 million Palestinians to create the state of Israel, which ultimately encompassed 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine by 1948—well above the 55 percent outlined in Resolution 181. These territorial outcomes were formally defined in the 1949 Rhodes Armistice, which created a demarcation line between Israel and Palestine. In the 1967 Six-Day War, following an Egyptian blockade of Israeli shipping access to the Red Sea, Israel soundly defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and seized the remaining 22 percent of land territory. While Israel officially disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, many in Gaza believe de facto occupation persists to this day. On the other side of the country, in the West Bank, 270 Israeli settlements exist in territory that the Rhodes Armistice considers Palestinian.

Physical Markers of Division

While settlements are often cited as a physical indication of territorial division in Israel, a wall that weaves across the West Bank physically separates Israeli and Palestinian territories as well, with a height of six to eight meters creating an imposing visual reminder of the divide. The route does not follow the Six-Day War’s armistice line—instead, 85 percent of the wall’s route is within West Bank territory. Construction began in 2002, and though the wall was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, it remains standing to this day. To pass from one side to the other, travelers must pass through substantial checkpoint facilities, which frequently have long wait times and dangerous overcrowding, presenting major challenges for laborers who must cross daily and drawing great condemnation from Palestinians.

The Green Line in Cyprus is also marked by such checkpoints, but conditions are far less contentious—the checkpoints are often small police booths, and can be found on city streets. The Green Line also appears less visually imposing: crude construction that is no more complex than stacked oil drums constitutes the divider in the capital of Nicosia, and across the island, there are 10,000 people who live or work inside the Green Line. However, mine clearing operations continue in the buffer zone. While the Line may not be as physically imposing as the wall in Israel, the de facto reality of division is made clear by the 35,000 Turkish troops in the TRNC. The TRNC is, to a considerable extent, a puppet state of Turkey. It has been economically dependent on Turkey since its formal inception in 1983, and its defense policy is largely determined by the Turkish military. Despite the UN’s immediate statement after the TRNC was created calling its formation “legally invalid,” its status remains much the same today, and talks to either reunite Cyprus or agree to a two-state solution have been unsuccessful thus far.

Ideological Disputes

In both cases, extremely strong and often irreconcilable convictions obfuscate peaceful developments. While the disputes are largely legal and ideological in Cyprus, and less marred by the deadly violence that has beset Israel, there is a prevailing notion that the two sides are just as unlikely, if not more unlikely, to find common ground. The Republic of Cyprus Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers the invasion to have been a violation of “all international laws,” and argues that Turkey aims to eliminate Greek and Christian culture in the island and complete a Turkification process. Conversely, the Turkish government at the time considered their military action to be a “peace operation” (despite ominously naming the Operation “Attila”). These views are echoed nearly verbatim by government officials in the TRNC to this day. Last year, President Ersin Tatar commemorated the Turkish arrival as a “peace operation” saving “life, property, and independence” and preventing Cyprus from becoming a Greek island. Furthermore, Prime Minister Faiz Sucuoğlu called for sovereign equality of the TRNC and a two-state solution on the island.

There are similarly opposing viewpoints expressed in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet is opposed to Palestinian independence and has called for the “natural growth” of West Bank settlements, clearly expressing that the two-state solution will be impossible during his tenure. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, however, believes that refusal to adopt a two-state solution at this point in time would cause further destabilization by jeopardizing Israeli Jewish culture, as changing population dynamics are resulting in near parity of the Jewish and Palestinian populations in a combined Israel and Palestine. He believes this reality would perpetuate what he perceives to be a developing system of apartheid by the Israeli government.  

Factors Impacting the Prevalence of Physical Violence

While political stability will be hard-won in both cases, Cyprus is far less prone to armed conflict. But in recent memory, Israel has been plagued by continuous outbreaks of violence. In May 2021, following Israeli attempts to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and clashes between Israeli authorities and Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa mosque, violence erupted and 11 days of fighting ensued. The conflict resulted in at least 255 deaths, and displaced an estimated 72,000 Palestinians. Within the last 15 years, other well publicized surges in violence in 2008 and 2014 resulted in over 3,300 Palestinian deaths and close to 100 Israeli deaths. Additionally, since 2005, more than 15,000 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel—though the majority were either intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome or landed harmlessly, 40 Israelis have been killed by these rockets, which serves as a constant reminder of the dangerous state of affairs in the region. In the case of Cyprus, however, the violence has taken on a far less pervasive nature. Although around 1,000 incidents occur along the Green Line annually, such as illegal civilian incursions, name-calling, and unlawful firearms use, the last major violence along the Green Line occurred in 1996, resulting in two deaths and at least 60 injuries. Sporadic Greek nationalist protests have also occurred in recent years, but on the whole, the scale of violence pales in comparison to that seen in Israel.

The limited ethnic overlap in Cyprus seems to have served to prevent violence: the Greek Cypriot population in TRNC and Turkish Cypriot population in the Republic of Cyprus are both extremely small, with each population estimated to be under 1,000. On an island of over 1.2 million people, this greatly minimizes the potential for ethnic clashes. Conversely, a population with more salient demographic divides, such as that of Israel, is likely to be more conducive to violent outbreaks. However, these present demographic realities only came about after widespread population transfers due to the 1975 Vienna III Agreement, which allowed for the migration of 60,000 Turkish Cypriots south of the Green Line to move to the north, and 140,000 Greek Cypriots north of the Green Line to move to the south. Furthermore, as nearly 100,000 Turks were shipped from Turkey to TRNC between 1974 and 2005 (where they took possession of former Greek Cypriot property), the stability may have also come at the expense of the commission of war crimes—the 4th Geneva Convention forbids the transfer of citizens of an occupying country to occupied territory. In only one city on the island, Pyla, located within the Green Line, do Greek and Turkish Cypriots live as neighbors; but, even in this city of 2,000, there is resentment due to a ruling that Greek and Turkish police must only police their “own people,” as the village is located in the buffer zone. Given the 35,000 Turkish troops in Northern Cyprus, and Turkish sentiments on the critical importance of maintaining a region for Turkish Cypriots, Republic of Cyprus attempts to repossess the territory or populate it with Greek Cypriots would be almost guaranteed to result in a forceful response from Turkish forces. To this end, TRNC President Tatar recently declared that Turkish troops would not withdraw, and that the TRNC “will not become Gaza,” clearly alluding to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The conditions in Israel are significantly more complex due to the pervasive nature of Israeli settlements within Palestine’s East Jerusalem and West Bank. An estimated 700,000 Israelis live in these settlements, which are considered a violation of international law by the UN and have been expanding since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. In addition, Israeli attempts to evict Palestinians from neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, as noted previously, have led to conflict. Past attempts to remove Israelis from Palestinian territory, as during the 2005 Gaza disengagement, have been met with physical resistance, and only 8,500 Israelis lived in Gaza at the time. Attempting to create an effective peace plan in Israel without demographic conditions of relative ethnic homogeneity seems extremely unfeasible. Furthermore, there is little agreement about the moral acceptability of the actions of the Israeli government. Human Rights Watch has produced a 213 page report alleging structural oppression of Palestinians on the part of Israel, which the Israel Foreign Ministry has called propaganda and fictional but which the Palestinian President’s Office considers to be a testament to colonial and oppressive Israeli policies.

Cyprus’ Future

When all the facts are considered, it becomes evident that the Cyprus and Israel-Palestine conflicts are politically similar in that they are both generally characterized by sets of conflicting viewpoints with little to no common ground. Ethnic relations, religious differences, and historical grievances and motives are all major contributing factors, which make agreeable compromise quite difficult. An important difference between the two situations is the ethnic breakdown of each region. Cyprus has a roughly homogenous ethnic composition in the TRNC and Republic of Cyprus, while even if one excludes the Palestinian territory, 20 percent of Israel’s population is composed of Arab Israelis, numbering 1.8 million.

With such realities in mind, there is perhaps a more likely route to peace in Cyprus than in Israel, but the ethnic context under which Cyprus’ stability has been reached remains a very important factor. The ethnic homogeneity in the TRNC and Republic of Cyprus would make the Green Line a relatively stable boundary in a formal two-state solution. President Erdogan espouses this perception, stating that Cyprus comprises “two separate states and two separate people” and accusing the United States and EU of conspiring against Turkish Cypriots. When statements from important groups in European politics are considered, there is a clear reality that Erdogan possesses a disproportionate amount of leverage over the situation; this is also made clear by the fact that the TRNC exists de facto, yet is only recognized by Turkey. Statements from the Presidents of the European Commission and Council expressed clearly that a two-state solution will “never, ever” be accepted by the Commission, and is a “non-starter” for the Council. The Greek Cypriot President has also rejected the notion of a two-state solution. Yet, it seems clear that the reality on the ground makes a two-state solution the only likely outcome that avoids a descent into chaos. The history of displacement and property seizure in TRNC would likely result in an outbreak of violence if the island were unified and Greek Cypriots could move back to their family’s pre-1974 property, which is now TRNC property and occupied by Turkish Cypriots. These realities are far more relevant, it seems, than the irreconcilable Cypriot view of an illegal invasion and the Turkish view of a peaceful, sustained occupation. Without international interest in military action on Cyprus, the de facto status of a two-state, ethnically divided Cyprus seems likely to remain stable.

Cover Image: "A double rainbow in Akamas Peninsula, Cyprus," by Michal Klajban, CC-BY-4.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons