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‘The naval blockade on Gaza was not lifted’

Israeli Ambassador to Cyprus Oren Anolik speaks with JNS about the Cyprus-Israel maritime corridor to Gaza, and the impact of the war with Hamas on bilateral relations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President of Cyprus Nikos Christodoulides in Nicosia, Sept. 3, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President of Cyprus Nikos Christodoulides in Nicosia, Sept. 3, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.

Amid rising pressure from the West to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, the charity vessel Open Arms left Cyprus earlier this month en route for Gaza with nearly 200 tons of food aboard.

In an interview with JNS, Israel’s Ambassador in Cyprus, Oren Anolik, discussed the initiative, along with various aspects of Israeli-Cypriot relations, including in the fields of security, agriculture, energy, tourism and culture. 

Q: Can you shine some light on the pilot program for aid shipments from Cyprus to Gaza? 

A: This Cypriot initiative was implemented for the first time about two weeks ago. It is meant to add more routes enabling aid to reach Gaza. We are cooperating with the Cypriot government on the security aspect to make sure that what enters Gaza is only humanitarian assistance. 

We are very supportive of this initiative. It’s a complicated project which requires the involvement of a number of agencies inside Israel and partners outside of Israel. 

The more we put it into use, the more streamlined the whole process will become. I believe that this will be a good way to send more aid to the people in Gaza, not to Hamas but to those who are not involved in the fighting and who actually need it. 

Q: Has it been successful? 

A: One shipment made its way into Gaza. As far as I know, it succeeded in reaching the storage of the World Food Programme. I can only assume that it was distributed. I would call it a success. By next week, we should see another shipment make its way through the same system.  

Q: Is this aid “sea corridor” from Cyprus to Gaza separate and distinct from the U.S.-led effort to build a floating pier off Gaza?

A: The United States is building a floating dock, not a port or a harbor, in Gaza. They are providing a technical solution for the shipments to make their way onto the shore for distribution. 

The naval blockade on Gaza was not lifted, it is only lifted specifically for Cyprus in the context of the corridor. Whatever passes through the American dock will undergo the same screening process as do current shipments. It will go from Cyprus to the dock and from the dock into Gaza, with the same principles applying. There is a very clear connection between the American effort and the Cypriot initiative for a maritime corridor. 

Some time in late April, early May we’ll see shipments start to go through the American dock. 

[After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel imposed a land and sea blockade, which Egypt later joined.]

Q: Has the Cypriot government been supportive of Israel’s war to destroy Hamas?

A: Cyprus is a friend of Israel. The position expressed by the Cypriot government from the beginning was very clear and quite balanced. Cyprus strongly condemned Hamas’s terrorist activities and the atrocities it committed on Oct. 7. They showed support for and solidarity with the people of Israel, and clearly acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself. 

Still, there are more elements in their position that should be taken into consideration […] Cyprus was also very clear on the need to minimize the number of Gazan noncombatants getting hurt, which we absolutely agree with, and to let as much humanitarian aid in as possible. Cyprus also stressed the need for a political horizon and a two-state solution to the conflict. 

Cyprus is a friend. In many cases our positions align, but not 100% and not in all aspects.

Q: In October, four Syrians were arrested after a homemade device detonated 30 meters from the Israeli embassy in Nicosia. There have also been regular reports of Iranian-linked plots to assassinate Israelis on Cypriot soil. How close is the security cooperation and how concerning are these developments?

A: While I cannot go into details on the issue of security, I can say that we have very good cooperation on security issues with the Cypriot authorities. They take very seriously existing threats to the security of Israeli interests in Cyprus.

Unfortunately, there are those, specifically the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations, that try to hurt Israeli interests abroad, they have the motivation and they are working to make sure that they have the capabilities to do so. 

It’s our job to try to thwart those threats. Cooperating with other countries is very important in this regard and this is exactly what is being done in Cyprus. 

Q: The European Union recently announced it had reached an internal deal on imposing sanctions against Jewish Judea and Samaria residents accused of “settler violence.” Why do allies such as Cyprus support such moves, which need to be unanimous?

A: This is a question which should be referred to the Cypriot government. The focus, for the European Union as well, should be on how to cripple, hurt and eradicate Hamas. Violence perpetrated by Israelis in Judea and Samaria is not acceptable to the Israeli authorities and is being dealt with by the police and other security authorities. We don’t believe that this is a major issue.

Q: Northern Cyprus is occupied by Turkey. Do you think this situation makes Cypriots more understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the disputed territories in Judea and Samaria?

A: I think that it is somewhat flawed to try to make comparisons between historical narratives. Last week, Ayelet Razin Bet Or, an expert on issues of sexual violence from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, came to Cyprus and took part in several events in which she described the use of sexual violence by Hamas terrorists against Israelis on Oct. 7.

It was very interesting to see the response of Cypriots, who expressed their understanding of a situation similar to what they experienced back in 1974 during the Turkish invasion, during which brutal killings, rapes and mutilations also took place. 

[Earlier this month, the  United Nations released a report stating that there is “clear and convincing” evidence that terrorists committed sexual violence, including rape, against hostages in Gaza, and that there are “reasonable grounds” to conclude that terrorists raped and gang-raped Israeli women in multiple locations on Oct. 7.]

In Cyprus, however, public opinion is divided. There are those among the Cypriots who feel closer to the Palestinian narrative and see some similarities from this point of view as well. Their response changes according to who they are and the way that they perceive the conflict. 

Q: There are major energy projects being planned between Israel, Cyprus and Greece. Can you shed some light on any developments, especially as relates natural gas and the prospects of Israeli imports to Europe?

A: I cannot point to any specific recent development. There are two technical committees between Israel and Cyprus within the energy ministries of each, one deals with natural gas and hydrogen while the other deals with connecting electrical grids. The committees are working together to promote this cooperation. I think there has been some progress on the issue of the electricity grids. There was a change in ownership of the promoting company for this project, which used to be known as EuroAsia interconnector and is now called Great Sea Interconnector. 

Israel continues to be very much interested in both projects. There are very complicated negotiations taking place. When it comes to natural gas, it’s connected to the companies involved because governments do not drill, they don’t build pipelines and they don’t do the technical work or take the risks that companies do. There are different layers to the negotiation process: one is governmental, one is between the companies and then the last layer is between governments and companies. I remain hopeful. 

[Back in September, Israel was set to finalize an energy deal with Greece and Cyprus which includes a mammoth electricity project connecting the power grids of the three countries, and a potential future regional natural gas pipeline between the eastern Mediterranean allies.]

We are also looking into ways to cooperate on renewable energies. In this regard, we do have interesting developments. An Israeli company signed an agreement with a Cypriot company on an environment-friendly project involving large-scale energy storage which does not rely on batteries. 

The pilot project is in progress and will hopefully be launched this year.

Q: Are there any other projects between the nations would you like to highlight?

A: Last week, I met with the Cypriot minister of agriculture and together we went through the list of things we’re cooperating on. It was even surprising to me how long the list is. 

One project is using barn owls, which are wonderful birds, as biologic exterminators to get rid of rodents and mice. This is already happening in Israel and other countries in the region, including Jordan, Morocco and now also Cyprus. We are also very supportive of the Cypriot initiative to mitigate the effects of climate change. We are looking into the possibility of cooperating on water technologies. We are looking into issues such as managing and combating heat waves, mitigating risks related to rising sea levels. 

We cooperate on trade and investment; many Israelis invest in real estate and other businesses in Cyprus. Israel is very important in the Cypriot tourist industry. Israel provides the second largest flow of tourists to Cyprus. In the field of security and defense, we are one of the leading security equipment suppliers to the national guard of Cyprus and we also organize joint exercises.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the Jewish community in Cyprus?

A: While there were Jews in Cyprus for decades, I would even say a millenia, it was a small community. In the last two decades, we saw a dramatic increase in Jews coming to live in Cyprus. 

Many of them are Israelis; there is no official number. Our estimation is around 12,000 Jews now live in Cyprus. This is a community in the process of growth. Institutions are still being established and there is room for initiatives. 

Chief Rabbi [of Cyprus Arie Zeev] Raskin, who is a leading figure, and the activities of Chabad are a major part of what the community is doing. People are looking for more options and ways of coming together, celebrating holidays and having Jewish education. 

This is a work in progress. 

Q: Did you see an increase in Jews immigrating from Israel to Cyprus after Oct. 7? 

A: In the first week after Oct. 7, we saw in Cyprus the collision of two huge tsunami waves. [The first was a] wave of Israelis fleeing because of the war. In many cases, they went through Cyprus to other places…. Foreign airlines had stopped flying into Israel, so the quickest way out was flying to Cyprus via Israeli airlines.

We also saw a huge wave of Israelis from all over the world looking to come back to Israel and join the war. They came to Cyprus and, from here, flew to Israel. Larnaca’s airport for a few days looked like a huge Israeli camp, with people coming from both directions. 

My assessment is that the vast majority [of those who left Israel] returned. Some families may have stayed, but I don’t think that there was a dramatic increase following Oct. 7. Again, there are no official numbers.  

I do believe that this increase in the community will continue because it’s very Israeli and Jewish to bring family and friends over, and Cyprus is a very good host. It’s relaxed, friendly. I would not be surprised to see an increase in the size of the community in the coming period. 

Q: What would you say is the biggest hurdle to improving bilateral relations and where do you see ties going in the near and long term?

A: The only hurdle is imagination. Otherwise, there is nothing physical that could impair the relations or create any kind of difficulty. It’s a small place and the capacity is limited as well. 

In the cultural sphere, it has been a bit more difficult these days to collaborate because of the war. Fortunately, the Cypriot Parliament ratified a Cyprus-Israel film agreement that was signed years ago for the co-production of films. 

Israelis and Cypriots can now co-produce films together either in Cyprus or in Israel. 

This was passed in February, and we saw in the public response, too—many people criticizing this cooperation with Israelis while they are fighting in Gaza.

It gives you an indication that there are difficulties, but I strongly believe that on the day after the war, we will be able to go back to the kind of good cooperation we had in the past on these issues. 

Geography is playing a very positive role in this regard. We are close, we are neighbors, and this gives us plenty of opportunities to cooperate. We also have shared values and similar interests. 

In Israel, Cyprus is a consensus—Israelis like Cyprus, they want to do more with Cyprus and work with Cyprus. Here, it is maybe more difficult now with criticism we get from specific political elements, but I believe that after the war Israel will go back to being a consensus in Cyprus.

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