As Gaza is pummelled, is Serbia secretly sending weapons to Israel?

According to media reports, arms exports have grown during wartime in another sign of ever-warming ties.

In this image from May 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic prepare to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Garden in Moscow
In this image from May 2018, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepare to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Garden in Moscow, Russia [Mikhael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters]

Throughout Israel’s war on Gaza, Serbia has sought to publicly avoid political involvement in the conflict, with Belgrade maintaining a relatively neutral position aimed at preserving relationships.

Serbia has ties with Israel and, at the same time, does not want to present itself on the international stage as undermining Palestinian interests, analysts told Al Jazeera.

Understanding the Balkan country’s unique perspective on Israel-Palestine requires some understanding of 20th-century history.

Serbs and Jewish Israelis share an identity as Holocaust victims. Belgrade is also linked to the Palestinians and Arab states through Yugoslavia’s historic role in the Non-Aligned Movement. And in 1967, Yugoslavia showed solidarity with Egypt and Syria by severing diplomatic relations with Israel and never restoring them until Yugoslavia’s collapse.

Since Yugoslavia’s breakup in the early 1990s, Serbia has been proud of its friendly relations with Israel as well as the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Belgrade has a record of voting in favour of Palestine at the United Nations and supporting a two-state solution.

Serbia sends weapons to Israel

But Serbian-Israeli ties have grown across numerous domains in recent years, and appear ever warmer in wartime.

On Wednesday, Balkan Insight reported that Serbia’s main state-owned arms trader, Yugoimport-SDPR, exported weapons worth 14 million euros ($15.2m) to Israel last month, citing customs data.

On March 12, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) reported that Serbia made at least two major arms or ammunition shipments to Israel since the October 2023 Hamas attack “despite a veil of secrecy covering the deals”.

Igor Novakovic, research director of the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC), told Al Jazeera that these shipments were likely part of a previous arrangement.

“The secrecy clause is there probably to prevent spoiling of the image of Serbia, in a sense that it could be interpreted as support to the Israeli war against Hamas,” he said.

Israel began its latest and deadliest onslaught of Gaza after October 7, when Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs the densely populated strip, attacked southern Israel, killing 1,139 people and taking more than 200 Israelis captive. Some captives have since been freed, others have died, and dozens remain held. In Gaza, more than 33,000 people have been killed by Israel, among them almost 14,000 children.

In recent weeks, world leaders have sharply criticised Israel’s military conduct as the civilian death toll rises while its stated aim of crushing Hamas remains elusive.

Serbia has a history of selling arms to Israel.

Noting that Belgrade was a top supplier of arms to Israel – second only to Washington – during the 2004-07 period, Lily Lynch, a foreign affairs writer who covers the Western Balkans, found the BIRN report “unsurprising”.

“The news is indicative of little more than Belgrade’s complete absence of any principles, values, or ideology, along with a willingness to sell arms to anyone without ever asking any questions,” she told Al Jazeera.

“As an added bonus, Serbia’s arms sales – not just to Israel but to Ukraine – also send a silent but powerful message to important people in Washington, whether [lobbyists], diplomats, or lawmakers, which is: ‘We are an essential partner to the West in the Balkans; while our neighbours can offer rhetorical support to Ukraine and Israel, we offer something concrete’,” she added.

‘Restoration of friendly relations’

In 2020, Serbia’s relationship with Israel entered a difficult period.

At that time, the administration of then-President Donald Trump sought to “normalise” Serbia-Kosovo relations while also pushing for Serbia to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and add Israel to the list of countries recognising Kosovo’s independence.

Belgrade explained that Israeli recognition of Kosovo would result in Serbia’s embassy staying in Tel Aviv, which is what occurred after Israel recognised Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade was so upset that it downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel.

Last year, however, Serbia and Israel began mending fences.

In July 2023, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visited Belgrade as Tel Aviv’s first chief diplomat to do so in 14 years. During his trip, Cohen declared that his country’s relationship with Serbia was “back on track” as he lauded Israel’s “closest ally” in the Balkans.

“Since October 2023, Serbia has continued to pursue its existing policy aimed at the restoration of friendly relations with Israel,” explained Lynch.

“Serbia’s foreign policy towards Israel has been friendly but also somewhat restrained. Belgrade has certainly been more muted about its support for Israel than most Western countries,” she added.

Serbia’s efforts to keep its positive relationship with Israel low-profile amid the Gaza war reflect Belgrade’s “desire to maintain friendly relations with the so-called ‘global south’ where Belgrade counts on the support of the many countries who still refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence”, according to Lynch.

“When the Hamas attack happened, Serbia condemned it and qualified it as a terrorist act. However, Belgrade was careful with words and did not want to choose either [side] in the conflict politically. [Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic] even stated that both Palestine and Israel are Serbia’s friends and that Belgrade does not want to be politically involved,” ISAC’s Novakovic told Al Jazeera.

Belgrade’s reaction to the Hamas-led incursion and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza has been “based on [Serbia’s] traditionally good relations – both with Israel and Palestine”, Bodo Weber, senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, told Al Jazeera.

“Through its voting performance at the UN, Belgrade on the one hand has outright condemned Hamas’s attack. On the other hand, Serbia subsequently sided with Western and other countries in calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, rejected by Israel, while at the same time intensifying contacts between Belgrade and Tel Aviv in order to maintain the good relations.”

Meanwhile, Serbia and other Balkan countries are aware of the potential security and geopolitical risks that could arise from the war in Gaza.

According to Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, potential vulnerabilities include the possible “radicalisation” of Southeastern Europe’s Muslim communities, the overspill of tensions from the Middle East to the region, and another refugee crisis.

Novakovic pointed out the “possibility” of attacks during games in which Israeli teams participate.

“As an illustration, two Israeli football clubs should have also had their European games in Serbia, but this arrangement was cancelled, probably due to security reasons,” he said.

Will Serbia move even closer to Israel?

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is not an ideological leader.

He is known for opportunistically shifting Belgrade’s foreign policy in response to international developments.

Four years ago, Vucic addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference in Washington to strengthen Serbia’s standing in the US capital.

“Serbia was using Israel to gain access to Israeli lobby groups and, by extension, get closer to the Trump administration,” said Vuksanovic. “There is no doubt that Serbia is again trying to get Israeli protection in Washington and use it as a shortcut for a stronger partnership with the US under [a potential] new Trump presidency.”

If Trump wins the US presidential election in November, Belgrade’s ties with Tel Aviv could strengthen.

“If Serbia-Israel relations do deepen in the period ahead, I would guess that this would have … to do with the anticipation of a new Trump administration, and the concurrent strengthening of ties among the global populist right, which includes fervently pro-Israel countries like [Viktor] Orban’s Hungary, one of Serbia’s closest allies,” said Lynch.

Source: Al Jazeera