Cyprus relates to Palestine

Parallels: Palestinian militants from the Bethlehem standoff are temporary guests of the Greeks on the divided island.

May 22, 2002|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LARNACA, Cyprus - In Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, they were surrounded by Israeli snipers and armor, and holed up in a compound with overflowing toilets and rotting corpses in the basement.

Now 13 Palestinian gunmen find themselves in the three-star Flamingo Hotel, across from a beach where Scandinavian tourists sunbathe topless and down the street from hungry crowds in the Salt Lake City fish tavern.

The temporary home might seem like a shock for militants expelled from the West Bank in an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The men have been on friendly soil here since May 10 as they wait for permanent homes in Europe.

European Union ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday approved a plan for a Spanish military plane to fly them to the European mainland today. Spain and Italy will each accept three men, Greece and Ireland two, and Portugal and Finland one. The 13th man will stay in Cyprus until a country can be found to receive him.

Here, they found themselves in another divided land: 35 percent of the island, where most of the ethnic Turkish population lives, is occupied by Turkey.

Turkey, a secular Islamic nation, has full relations with Israel. And it has populated its portion of the island with settlers from its Anatolia region - which might remind the Greek Cypriots and their Palestinian guests of Israel's settlements.

Here on the Greek part of the island, many Greek Cypriots empathize with the Palestinians, conflating that struggle with their own troubles as a small nation illegally dominated by a powerful neighbor.

And this colors views of the conflict simmering elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.

There are, of course, differences.

Greek Cypriots have not muddied their cause by sending suicide bombers into pizzerias and seder dinners. And Turkey makes no pretense that its occupation of Cyprus has strategic value - rather, it says, its soldiers are here to protect the island's ethnic Turks.

Nevertheless, the sympathy many Greek Cypriots feel for Palestinians is real. The good will extends to the Parliament, which passed a resolution last month backing the Palestinian cause and condemning "the genocide conducted by the Sharon government."

(The resolution made no condemnation of the Passover suicide attacks that prompted the incursions into the West Bank.)

Dr. Marios Matsakis, a Greek Cypriot member of Parliament who tried in vain to meet with Yasser Arafat last month, said it is natural that Cypriots are drawn to Palestinians.

"We might feel a little closer to the Palestinian people because we had a number of Cypriot refugees expelled from their own homes by the Turkish army," Matsakis says. "And they're powerless to do anything."

The Palestinian cause received sympathetic media coverage here, even during a string of suicide bombing attacks over Passover. A recent editorial in The Cyprus Weekly stated that this island "is itself the victim of a situation where Security Council resolutions are rejected by a foreign occupying power."

Cypriots also respect Palestinians' battle for independence. Cypriots themselves took to the hills in a guerrilla movement to drive out the British in 1960. But after that, tensions increased between the island's ethnic Greeks and Turks.

In 1974, Athens backed a coup to overthrow the island's elected government and install a regime that favored uniting with Greece. In response, Ankara invaded, and 162,000 Greeks fled their homes in the north, while thousands of Cypriot Turks fled to the occupied part of the island. In 1983, the administration of Turkish leader Rauf Denktash declared his zone to be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (it is recognized by Turkey alone).

Today, nearby Nicosia is Europe's only divided capital. On the Greek side, Lidras Street, a broad pedestrian avenue lined with cafes and shops, dead-ends at a concrete wall and guard post. Tourists can climb a wooden platform and peer down a rubble-strewn alley at Turkish recruits in the distance.

In some places the Green Line between the two sides thins to the width of an alley. Strolling at the foot of the old city wall, you can look up and see a handful of Turks at a cafe on the top, sipping coffee and grinning through a chain link fence.

Cypriots have expressed little fear of the Palestinians in the Flamingo, despite an Israeli government spokesman's insistence that "all these 13 had blood on their hands."

Indeed, the commander of Cyprus's antiterrorist unit, Iakovos Papacostas, told Reuters that taking in the men was a matter of charity: "Cypriot people are very friendly," he says, "and this was a humanitarian issue."

In the Flamingo, employees say other guests don't mind the presence of men who showed up wearing Arab kaffiyeh on their heads and, in one case, a Palestinian flag as a cape.

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