Cyprus hosts ‘foes’ stranded due to Mideast mayhem Israeli, Lebanese yachtsmen recall better times

LARNACA – In the charming if somewhat run-down marina of Larnaca, the cedar-emblazoned flag of Lebanon flies proudly from a yacht as nearby Israelis clad in yarmulkes and prayer shawls prepare for the Sabbath. Cyprus and its coastal resorts, which have long played host to sworn foes in the Middle East, is once again gearing up to serve as a safe haven for a troubled region. But given the bloodshed just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away across the water in Lebanon, the Israeli boats moored alongside the Lebanese yacht have opted to play it safe and not hoist the Star of David. For it was here, in a violation of the unofficial Arab-Israeli truce on this Mediterranean island, that a PLO commando killed three Israelis on their boat in Larnaca marina in September 1985, claiming they were Mossad agents. «That was cold-blooded murder. Am I Mossad? I have been coming here for the past 20 years,» said Joel Chezer, a 68-year-old retired doctor from Nahariya in northern Israel where Hezbollah rockets have rained down in recent days. Chezer, who has served in the US Army and as an Israeli reservist doctor during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, sailed to Cyprus on holiday with his friend Yitzhak Bongay 48 hours before the crisis erupted on Wednesday. «In my opinion, Lebanon was always the best neighbor of Israel… until the PLO and then Hezbollah came along,» said Bongay, 60, an architect who lives in a village just 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Lebanese border. «I remember the days in the early 1970s when we would wave to each other across the border as we passed by,» he said. «Even now, we do not consider ourselves at war with the people of Lebanon,» he said. «Lebanon could once again be the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ like it was before the Palestinians came… if we can get rid of Hezbollah.» Bongay acknowledged that the onslaught against Israel’s northern neighbor – that has killed over 165 Lebanese – would do nothing to endear the two peoples. «I don’t think this is right to turn the Lebanese people against us, but we have no choice… I don’t believe this can be settled by force, but who are we supposed to speak to?» he asked. Both Israelis laid the blame squarely on the Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah, which has been raining rockets on northern Israel ever since its capture of two soldiers triggered the crisis. «That’s why the (Israeli) security zone (in south Lebanon) was there (before 2000), so we would not be shelled,» said Chezer, who fondly remembers skiing in the mountains of the Christian heartland of Lebanon after the invasion. «At the time of the pullout, I thought it was wrong to dismantle the zone, but until now I had been proved wrong. It had stayed quiet,» he said. When the security zone was in place, along with an Israeli-allied militia, «we had patients at our hospital from south Lebanon,» said the orthopedic surgeon and keen sailor. ‘Out of the blue’ Both Chezer and Bongay said the current crisis came «out of the blue.» «This time, I don’t think Israel has gone far enough. How long could I allow you to keep slapping me in the face before I respond?» said Chezer. Bongay said another surprise has been the military capabilities of Hezbollah, especially given Israel’s much-vaunted intelligence services. «We are wondering how brilliant our intelligence is when they (Hezbollah) managed to hit our corvette (killing four Israelis on Friday) with a radar-guided land-to-sea missile,» he said. Jean-Philippe el-Khazen, the 50-year-old skipper of a 10-meter (34-foot) yacht, one of three Lebanese vessels stranded in Larnaca by Israel’s air and sea blockade, had nothing but praise for his Cypriot hosts. «The Cypriots always welcome us… They really put us at ease and are ready to assist in everything we need, even to take us by car to the supermarket,» he said. «The management of the marina has offered us their total assistance: free phone calls, Internet access, whatever we need. They have also tightened security and given the police instructions to be vigilant,» he said. Khazen and shipmate Tony Abu Jawdeh, a 50-year-old Maronite trader, explained that the crisis broke when they were already at sea and headed for a planned five-day break in Cyprus. “It feels a bit strange to be next to Israelis, but as fellow yachtsmen there is a civility between us. I think they (the Israelis) don’t feel proud of what is happening on the other side of the water,» said Khazen. Abu Jawdeh said, «This takes us back to the bad old days of the (1975-1990) civil war when we often came for long stays in Cyprus with our families to escape the fighting.» Like their Israeli neighbors, the Lebanese have been in constant touch with the latest news by radio (both Israeli and Lebanese airwaves reach Cyprus) by mobile phone or through a network of friends at the marina. For Dr Chezer, holidaying with the «enemy» is not a problem. «I was swimming next to a Fatah political chief in Polis (on the northwest coast) a few years ago. I had no problem. There is enough water for both of us. We are all guests on this island,» he said. «There is a natural camaraderie between boat people, and I believe there is a natural camaraderie between different people in general. That is the normal way to live, not by firing rockets at each other,» said Chezer. With an extended holiday in store, Khazen and Abu Jawdeh, are likely to be joined by many more Lebanese among the thousands of people, mostly foreigners, being evacuated via Cyprus this week.