In light of Ankara's recent criticism of what it calls Israel's "open-air jail" in Gaza, today's date, which marks the anniversary of Turkey's invasion of Cyprus, has special relevance. Turkish policy toward Israel, historically warm and only a decade

In light of Ankara's recent criticism of what it calls Israel's "open-air jail" in Gaza, today's date, which marks the anniversary of Turkey's invasion of Cyprus, has special relevance.

Turkish policy toward Israel, historically warm and only a decade ago approaching full alliance, has cooled since Islamists took power in Ankara in 2002. Their hostility became explicit in January 2009, during the Israel-Hamas war. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan grandly condemned Israeli policies as "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction" and even invoked God ("Allah will … punish those who transgress the rights of innocents"). His wife Emine Erdoğan hyperbolically condemned Israeli actions as so awful they "cannot be expressed in words."

Emine Erdoğan, wife of the Turkish prime minister.

Their verbal assaults augured a further hostility that included insulting the Israeli president, helping sponsor the "Freedom Flotilla," and recalling the Turkish ambassador.

This Turkish rage prompts a question: Is Israel in Gaza really worse than Turkey in Cyprus? A comparison finds this hardly to be so. Consider some contrasts:

  • Turkey's invasion of July-August 1974 involved the use of napalm and "spread terror" among Cypriot Greek villagers, according to Minority Rights Group International. In contrast, Israel's "fierce battle" to take Gaza relied only on conventional weapons and entailed virtually no civilian casualties.
  • The subsequent occupation of 37 percent of the island amounted to a "forced ethnic cleansing" according to William Mallinson in a just-published monograph from the University of Minnesota. In contrast, if one wishes to accuse the Israeli authorities of ethnic cleansing in Gaza, it was against their own people, the Jews, in 2005.
  • The Turkish government has sponsored what Mallinson calls "a systematic policy of colonization" on formerly Greek lands in northern Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots in 1973 totaled about 120,000 persons; since then, more than 160,000 citizens of the Republic of Turkey have been settled in their lands. Not a single Israeli community remains in Gaza.
  • Ankara runs its occupied zone so tightly that, in the words of Bülent Akarcalı, a senior Turkey politician, "Northern Cyprus is governed like a province of Turkey." An enemy of Israel, Hamas, rules in Gaza.
  • The Turks set up a pretend-autonomous structure called the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus." Gazans enjoy real autonomy.
  • A wall through the island keeps peaceable Greeks out of northern Cyprus. Israel's wall excludes Palestinian terrorists.

The division of Cyprus since 1974.

A sign on the fence around Varosha, Cyprus.

And then there is the ghost town of Famagusta, where Turkish actions parallel those of Syria under the thuggish Assads. After the Turkish air force bombed the Cypriot port city, Turkish forces moved in to seize it, thereby prompting the entire Greek population (fearing a massacre) to flee. Turkish troops immediately fenced off the central part of the town, called Varosha, and prohibited anyone from living there.

As this crumbling Greek town is reclaimed by nature, it has become a bizarre time capsule from 1974. Steven Plaut of Haifa University visited and reports: "Nothing has changed. … It is said that the car distributorships in the ghost town even today are stocked with vintage 1974 models. For years after the rape of Famagusta, people told of seeing light bulbs still burning in the windows of the abandoned buildings."

Curiously, another Levantine ghost town also dates from the summer of 1974. Just 24 days before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Israeli troops evacuated the border town of Quneitra, handing it over to the Syrian authorities. Hafez al-Assad chose, for political reasons too, not to let anyone live in it. Decades later, it too remains empty, a hostage to bellicosity.

Signs on a metal gate in the capital city of Nicosia.

Erdoğan claims that Turkish troops are not occupying northern Cyprus but are there in "Turkey's capacity as a guarantor power," whatever that means. The outside world, however, is not fooled. If Elvis Costello recently pulled out of a concert in Tel Aviv to protest the "suffering of the innocent [Palestinians]," Jennifer Lopez canceled a concert in northern Cyprus to protest "human rights abuse" there.

In brief, Northern Cyprus shares features with Syria and resembles an "open-air jail" more than Gaza does. How rich that a hypocritical Ankara preens its moral plumage about Gaza even as it runs a zone significantly more offensive. Instead of meddling in Gaza, Turkish leaders should close the illegal and disruptive occupation that for decades has tragically divided Cyprus.

Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.


July 20, 2010 addendum: I lacked space above to mention, much less quote from, the angry speech that Cypriot Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II delivered on July 4, 2010, to Pope Benedict XVI. Excerpts:

since 1974, Cyprus and its Church have been experiencing the most difficult times in their history. ... Turkey has implemented a plan of ethnic cleansing. It drove out the Orthodox Christians from their ancestral homes and brought -- and continues to bring -- hundreds of thousands of settlers from Anatolia, thus altering the demographic character of Cyprus. In addition, it has changed all the historical place names into Turkish ones.

Our cultural heritage has been plundered relentlessly and our Christian monuments are being destroyed or sold on the markets of illicit dealers in antiquities, in an attempt to rid the island of every last trace of all that is Greek or Christian. ...

In this struggle of ours, Your Holiness, which the Cypriot people are waging with the guidance of their Leaders, we would greatly appreciate your active support. We look forward to your help in order to ensure protection and respect for our sacred monuments and our cultural heritage, in order that the diachronic values of our Christian spirit might prevail. These values are currently being brutally violated by Turkey -- a country desirous of joining the European Union.

Dec. 26, 2010 update: For news on the Turkey in Cyprus half of this article, see my weblog entry "Updates on Turkey in Cyprus."

Burak Bekdil.

May 23, 2014 update: The remarkable Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil compares North Cyprus with Jerusalem today in his Hürriyet column, "The 'conquest-over-occupation' season opens'." He notes that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu last week, stated that "under the term[s] of international law, Jerusalem is under [Israeli] occupation." Then he asked: "If U.N. decisions are not being implemented then why are they taken in the first place?" To which Bekdil replies:

How can a foreign minister cite U.N. resolutions about "Jerusalem's occupation" when several other U.N. resolutions have described his own country as the occupier of Cyprus over the last four decades?