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Our View: What would a potential Palestinian exodus mean for Cyprus?

palestinians carry bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an israeli checkpoint in gaza city

The arrival of over a dozen boats in the space of a week, carrying hundreds of Syrian irregular migrants, has sparked talk of ‘crisis’ and a migrant ‘invasion’. But how prepared are we for the – speculative, but possible – scenario of an influx of Palestinian refugees in the near future?

This was never an issue before, due to the naval blockade of Gaza. But Israel’s war is rapidly making the Strip uninhabitable – both by flattening infrastructure and, for instance, damaging the water supply by pumping seawater into Hamas tunnels. Even if the bombs stopped tomorrow, there’s no prospect of Gaza’s two million people living there as before.

Where (if anywhere) would they go? The West Bank is already overrun with illegal settlements. Egypt is the most obvious option, but President Sisi has been steadfast in refusing to open the border, both because of the headaches two million Palestinians would cause and because many of his own people would consider him an accessory to ethnic cleansing.

That may soon change. The EU met with Egypt last month, then announced a €7.4 billion aid package. Presumably, Gaza was also on the agenda.

The idea of forcing the Gazans off their land is no longer unsayable. A Reuters story on March 25 included a quote from a Palestinian man in Rafah named Abu Khaled who told the agency that “with no ceasefire in sight, we might end up dead or displaced somewhere else, maybe north and maybe south (to Egypt)”.

What would happen if two million destitute Palestinians were displaced to Egypt, presumably living in camps of some sort? Wouldn’t they naturally join the migrant influx?

It’s not just a question of wanting to escape to the EU, after decades of being trapped in an open-air prison. It’s also that Cyprus specifically has become a major hub for Israeli businesses in the past few years, not to mention the presence of 10-20,000 Israelis residing here – an obvious target for possible terrorist acts and reprisals, as happened briefly in the 80s with attacks like the ‘Larnaca yacht killings’.

What would Cyprus do in such a scenario? The risk of becoming a battlefield in the Arab-Israeli conflict is clearly unacceptable – yet it’s also impossible to impose the draconian security measures found in Israel itself, especially once you factor in our porous ‘border’ with the occupied north.

One obvious answer might be to declare that Egypt is a safe country and therefore Palestinians aren’t eligible for asylum, thus allowing the authorities to deport them right away, or even turn back refugee boats before they land.

Then again, many Palestinians could presumably show a well-founded fear for their life, which is the main criterion. Some might also pose as Syrians, especially if it’s not clear where their journey originated. Syria is still an unsafe country, with the EU resisting our government’s pleas to change that designation.

Above all, the humanitarian case for helping displaced Palestinians is even stronger now than it was in the 70s and 80s, when we took in refugees from the war in Lebanon. The destruction of Gaza has radicalised people (especially young people) like no other recent event. Many who were previously apolitical on the subject are now outraged by what Israel is doing there.

Outrage is fickle in the social-media age, of course. But the thousands of Cypriots who sympathise deeply with the people of Gaza but feel powerless to help may be driven to rebellion if, after all the Palestinians have been through, Cyprus shuts its doors and turns them away on top of that. At the very least, it’d be a divisive policy.

“We cannot influence geography,” government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis said last Tuesday, even while admitting that Cyprus is currently at breaking point with the flow of migrants – and that’s really the whole trouble.

Anyone looking at Cyprus on a map of the eastern Mediterranean would naturally assume that we’re caught in the crossfire of the many wars happening so close to us – yet (with the obvious exception of 1974) we’ve managed to remain relatively unscathed, next door to the troubled Levant yet magically separate from it.

That may change – and, if it does, today’s migrant ‘invasion’ will pale in comparison.

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