By Nabeel Shaath
Built on common experience, long-term interests and moral principles, Palestine’s relationship with both Cyprus and Greece goes back a long way. Short-term economic gains should not be allowed to damage these deep and precious friendships.
Over the last 70 years, the relationship between Cyprus and Palestine was that of close friendship and political alliance. Both were former British colonies and both suffered from British manipulations, leaving behind two divided homelands.
The struggle of the Cypriots to liberate and unite their land found close allies in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt. President Nasser of Egypt and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus stood side by side in the struggle against British occupation. For the Palestinians, these two leaders were natural allies in their struggle for freedom and independence. Egypt, Cyprus and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) joined the Non Aligned Movement (NAM).
I remember my first trip to Nicosia in 1965. It reminded me of my hometown of Jaffa. The fragrance of jasmine and orange blossom, and the colourful flowers, brought back all the memories of the home I lost when Israel was created in 1948; the year that I and the majority of my people became refugees.
As Palestinians, we stood against the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus. I remember, in my capacity as foreign minister of Palestine (1994-2005), my instructions were very clear: to stand by the legitimate government of Cyprus, and to stand against any recognition of a separatist state in the north of Cyprus, particularly within the Arab League, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), where we had some moral and political influence.
The friendship was mutual. Cyprus recognised the State of Palestine in 1988, and supported our struggle for independence and our pursuit of peace. Palestine supported Cyprus in its pursuit of independence, territorial integrity, and unity.
We Palestinians have traditionally had an equally strong relationship with Greece. Part of our ancestral origin can be traced back to the Greek island of Crete. We raise the Greek flag on all our Orthodox churches, to which most of our Christians belong. We will never forget the welcome party in Athens, in 1982, after 88 days of Israeli bombardment and siege of Beirut, killing thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese people. Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou led the party that met our historic leader, Yasser Arafat, on his arrival.
As foreign minister, I worked very hard to support Greece in the Arab and Muslim world, both economically and politically. The close bond shared between Andreas Papandreou and Yasser Arafat, and between me and his son George, reflected a long friendship between Palestine and Greece. And that relationship, like our relationship with Cyprus, was not limited to a particular political party. It was a friendship among peoples: Greeks, Cypriots, and Palestinians.
As Greece and Cyprus joined the EU, they became two of our closest allies within the EU, supporting our quest for a peaceful political solution, and standing by us when Israel violated its commitments, whether by continuing to expropriate land and water, destroying the Gaza Strip, or denying us the State we had accepted on 22% of our homeland. Our Greek and Cypriot allies stood by the principles and commitments that brought us together for 70 years.
Lately, and regrettably, these relationships have begun to change.
One understands the importance of economic and political interests in the formation and shifts of political alliances. Today, Cyprus, Greece and Israel are linked by certain issues, including natural gas, oil, geopolitical influences, and financial crises.
We understand. But, such connections are not unique to Greece and Cyprus. Several other countries such as Russia, China, India and the EU countries have developed important economic relations with Israel. Some of them were also historical allies of the Arab world and to Palestine. At one time we felt that their closeness to both Palestine and Israel may be an advantage in supporting the Peace Process between us.
However, short-term changes in economic interests and political positions do not change important facts, such as who is the occupier and who is the occupied in the Holy Land, and which of the two countries is being warned against becoming an apartheid state by even its closest allies. Nor should it change power assessments, such as who has extensive military and nuclear capabilities, or whose income is 40 times that of the other. And finally, one should not forget who has remained committed to the peace agreements, and who has violated those agreements. Changes in economic interests do not change international law, or the sanctity of justice and human rights.
China, France, Brazil, and Russia have common economic and political interests with Israel, but their position on the rights of the Palestinians, and on the necessity of ending the Israeli occupation, has not changed. In fact, as Israel continues to violate international law, UN resolutions, and signed agreements, these powers have become more ready to condemn Israeli actions against the Palestinians, and apply sanctions against Israel.
We were given assurances by the leaders of Cyprus and Greece that their closer relationship with Israel would not change their commitments to Palestine, nor would it adversely affect their historical relationship with Palestine or the Arab and Muslim world.
The Prime Minister of Greece and the President of Cyprus both recently visited Palestine and Israel. Both of them made statements in Palestine reaffirming these historical positions. President Abbas was invited to attend the voting in the Greek Parliament which unanimously recommended that the Greek government should recognise the State of Palestine. The explanation was very clear: Parliament members of all the Greek parties, representing all of the Greek people, support Palestine, and the right of the Palestinians.
In the light of the above, it is very difficult to explain some of the recent words and actions of leaders of these two countries.
On January 12, 2016, Mr Averof Neophytou, the head of the ruling DISY party, and Chairman of the European and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Cypriot House of Representatives visited Israel and was quoted as saying:
“Cyprus no longer sees Israel as an aggressive country imposing its will by force on the Palestinians, but rather as a small nation fighting for survival in the face of much greater odds.”
He told the Israeli newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, that over the last decade his country which had once, alongside Greece, been among the most critical of Israel in Europe, now had a “clearer picture” of Israel.
“It is a country of eight million fighting a struggle for survival and having to face hundreds of millions of Muslims and Arabs, part of who don’t even recognise the right of the existence of a Jewish state… So which side is strong, and which side is weak? Which side is fighting for survival?”
We were glad to see that the Cypriot Opposition party (AKEL) responded immediately:
“The President of DISY must realise that it is one thing to seek to develop mutually beneficial relations of cooperation with all the countries in our neighbourhood, including Israel, something moreover that was promoted correctly during the period of the previous government, and it’s quite another thing to distort history and reality…”
Although there was an immediate response within Cyprus to the Neophytou statement, the fact that such a statement was even made, and so far not retracted, is worrying.
What is even more worrying is the apparently total change in the position of Greece and Cyprus in terms of the voting patterns and lobbying activities of their representatives within the EU.
On January 17 this year, the Greek Foreign Minister almost succeeded in torpedoing the conclusions of the latest meeting of EU Foreign Ministers, by insisting on the Israeli version in several key resolutions. Statements attributed to Greek leaders, announcing their refusal to implement the EU directive on the labeling of settlement products, were shocking, but they were corrected eventually. Greek statements supporting the Israeli claim that the whole of Jerusalem was the historical capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, completely ignoring Palestinian rights to Jerusalem, were even more shocking, and remain uncorrected.
The Palestinian people expect a correction and an explanation. We do not want to abandon our friendship with Greece or Cyprus, nor do we want to see a shift away from the strategic relationships that link these two neighboring countries to the Arab and Muslim world.
I am sure the majority of the Greek and Cypriot people share my feelings about our relationship. We are loyal to this heritage, and we do not change our moral commitments and principles for a temporary shift in economic interests.
We do not object to Greece or Cyprus pursuing their mutual economic interests with Israel, but we call on them to remain committed to their long-term friendship and commitment to our shared principles. In the long run, these principles are the cornerstones upon which peace, stability, security, and economic prosperity are built, not only in the Eastern Mediterranean, but in the whole world.
Nabeel Shaath served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Palestine from 1994 until 2005.