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The Israel-Hamas conflict: threats and security implications for the Western Balkans

06 Feb 2024
Short Read by Adrian Shtuni

The security and humanitarian implications of the 7 October 2023 terrorist attacks on Israel, followed by the war in Gaza, have already been broad and significant. They are not limited to the immediate neighbourhood of the violent hostilities or the wider Middle East region. As the conflict worsens and risks spreading, its impact and far-reaching effects on European security will likely become more consequential. Much like during the recent armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Western Balkans, Europe’s land bridge to Asia and the Middle East, have felt the impact of the Gaza war and are liable to face increased security pressures as the conflict stretches on. These pressures could compound the region’s security challenges (including those linked to political violence) at a time when it is experiencing a thawing of its own intractable “frozen conflicts” centred on ethnic and religious differences. This analysis provides an overview of recent developments tied to the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict, current threats, and emerging trends with security implications for the region.


Concerns of terrorist infiltration to the EU via the Western Balkans route

The infiltration of migration routes by terrorists transiting from conflict areas through the Western Balkans to the European Union (EU) represents a constant potential threat to public safety and  overall security in Europe. The recent EUROPOL annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2023 (TE-SAT) again emphasised this concern. During the war in Syria and Iraq, and particularly during 2015 and 2016, the Western Balkans became the frontline of the migrant crisis facing Europe. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants reached the EU through the so-called “Western Balkans route,” one of the main migratory corridors for irregular arrivals in the EU territory transiting through Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. The irregular migrants and refugees transiting through the region are often known to use the services of established smuggling rings and transnational organised-crime groups composed of criminals from the Western Balkans and the countries where the smuggled people originate. 

According to Frontex, 2023 recorded the highest number of yearly irregular arrivals in the EU since 2016. The Western Balkans was the second most active migratory route into the EU accounting for 26 percent of all arrivals. Against this backdrop of increased irregular border crossings, the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has given rise to concerns about a renewed wave of irregular arrivals and potential terrorist infiltrations into the EU through the Western Balkan route. As a result, in late 2023, Italy, Slovenia, Czechia, Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and France reintroduced temporary border controls at their internal borders. Most countries have since extended these measures until May or June 2024. 

Of the eleven Schengen area countries that have reintroduced border controls, seven specifically cite possible terrorist infiltration and threats, and five mention activities along the “Balkan route” or the “Western Balkans” as a main concern in their reasoning for adopting these measures. For example, Italy’s reasoning cites the “increased threat of violence within the EU following the attack on Israel, risk of possible terrorist infiltration into irregular migration flows from the Balkan route; land border with Slovenia.”

In fact, numerous cases of suspected terrorists and foreign terrorist fighters using the Western Balkan route to reach EU countries have been reported in the past. One of the most prominent cases involved two Iraqi Islamic State militants who carried out suicide attacks near the Stade de France in November 2015. They had reportedly travelled through the Western Balkans route posing as Syrian refugees. Two others, an Algerian and a Pakistani Islamic State militants who were sent to Europe to carry out terrorist attacks, followed the same route, travelling through North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia before being arrested at a refugee camp in the western Austrian city of Salzburg in December 2015.

As of late January 2024, there have been no newly reported terrorist incidents, or cases of potential terrorist activities in the EU involving militants who may have infiltrated the Western Balkans migration route to get to the Schengen area. Yet, the fact that five EU countries independently assess the risk of potential terrorist infiltrations via the Western Balkans route sufficient to warrant the introduction of border enforcement measures is significant. A possible increase in the influx of irregular crossings toward EU countries through this route, particularly if the conflict spreads in the Middle East, would very likely cause added security pressures on the countries of the region.


Travel warnings

Israel’s National Security Council (NSC) updated travel warnings for many European countries in early December 2023. According to a color-coded map released by the NSC, Albania and Bosnia and Hercegovina were assessed as destinations with moderate threat level 3 on a four-point scale.  Citizens of Israel are recommended to reconsider any non-essential travel to countries with threat level 3 due to a significant increase in hostility against Israelis/Jews since the beginning of Operation Swords of Iron. The highest advisory level for NSC is four. Travel to these countries is not allowed due to a higher likelihood of life-threatening risks.

While Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina were the only two countries in the region and the continent with a higher assessed threat level to Israeli citizens as of the time of writing, there is no publicly available information on what specific threat indicators informed the Israeli authorities’ decision to elevate the assessed threat in these cases. The rest of Europe was assessed by the NSC as having a potential threat level 2 or a level 1, which means no travel threat.


Protests and hate speech

As of late January 2024, there have been no violent incidents in the Western Balkans that may be considered inspired or provoked by the renewed conflict in Gaza. Namely, there have been no reported terror attacks or faith-based hate crimes in the form of physical incidents targeting Jewish or Palestinian communities in the region, or acts of vandalism targeting Jewish cemeteries or monuments honouring the memory of the Holocaust victims, which have been recorded in the past.

Nevertheless, there has been a considerable increase in hate speech online, be that antisemitic rhetoric which, constitutes the overwhelming majority of instances encountered on various social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, X, YouTube, TikTok, etc., or anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim hate speech. This is in line with trends observed elsewhere in the EU, UK, and the United States, where hate speech has spiked since the terrorist attacks of 7 October 2023 and the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. The concern is that the increase in hate speech and the volume of other hateful material being circulated online will galvanise radicalised individuals to carry out hate crimes or get involved in terrorist activities.

Antisemitic slogans have also been spotted during pro-Palestinian protest rallies held in the region. In a few cases, rally participants were holding up placards featuring the flag of Israel placed in what appears to be a trash bin that read: “Please Keep the World Clean.” This is a clear genocidal antisemitic call. In other cases, protesters chanted and held up antisemitic signs that read “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free”,which represents an implicit call for the elimination of the Jewish state. Other signs equated the Star of David to the Third Reich Swastika, the Israeli flag to the Nazi flag, or Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler.


A surge in misinformation and disinformation

Another observed trend has been a surge of misinformation and disinformation related to the Israel-Hamas conflict, primarily online. There have been many cases of recycled graphic and shocking content from previous conflicts (including in Egypt and Syria) being passed off as current content from Gaza, or fake news and manipulated videos, as well as other deceptive content. It is important to emphasize that the Western Balkans are home to the largest indigenous Muslim population in Europe, and the Palestinian issue resonates significantly in the region. For example, one poll by Euronews Albania in early December 2023 found that 45.1 percent  of respondents supported the Palestinian side in the conflict while only 9.2 percent  expressed support for Israel. The survey also confirmed a strong public interest for news from the Israel-Hamas war, with 53.6 percent of respondents stating they consumed news from the conflict very often or often.  

To be sure, some inaccurate reporting and misinformation is inevitable in a fast-developing conflict at a time when information demand far outstrips supply from the few credible sources on the ground. Yet, besides reporting inaccuracies, there has been a sharp and concerning growth in the supply of deliberate disinformation generated and disseminated with the apparent intent of swaying public opinion and manipulating audiences in the Western Balkans, particularly those who access news through social media platforms. If not curbed, this observed trend has the potential of adding to the polarisation of the public discourse in the region and risks fuelling violent incidents and hate crimes. It is a well-established fact that misinformation and disinformation act as accelerants of societal polarisation, even in consolidated democracies with high levels of social cohesion. Polarisation, in turn, increases the likelihood of political violence (including the type rooted in identity-based ideologies) and terrorism.

Regions like the Western Balkans with a recent past defined by interethnic strife and recurring ethno-religious tensions are arguably more vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation driven polarisation and violence. Even more so when the region’s news cycle is increasingly dominated by headlines of impending armed interventions and secession, and the public discourse is saturated with nationalist rhetoric.

Indeed, The Global Risk Report 2024 identified misinformation and disinformation as the most severe global risk anticipated over the next two years that is likely to be leveraged by foreign and domestic actors to widen socio-political cleavages and amplify ideological violence and political repression.   

While some of the main social media platforms have reportedly taken steps to address the issue of Gaza conflict-related fake or mislabelled content that violates their policies or local laws, it is unclear whether the scope of such efforts extends to content the main languages spoken in the Western Balkans, namely Albanian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Macedonian. Various reports have raised concerns in the recent past that the main social media platforms lack adequate content moderation capabilities in non-English languages.


Foreign fighters: A new wave?

Starting from 2012 and well into 2016 over 1,070 Western Balkan citizens travelled to Syria and Iraq, primarily joining the terrorist organisation Islamic State and other militant jihadist groups fighting in the region. This unprecedented outflow of people from the Western Balkans to battlefields in the Middle East was largely the result of long-term and targeted radicalisation, recruitment, and mobilisation efforts led by transnational jihadist networks operating in the region. Concerns have been raised that the Israel-Hamas conflict might attract another wave of foreign fighters, including from the Western Balkans to the region.  

After the 7 October 2023 attack, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu equated Hamas to the Islamic State. To be sure, terrorist organisations like the Islamic State and Hamas have similarities and use common tactics, but they are also very different in their ideological frameworks and goals. While the Islamic State is a global jihadist organisation attracting Sunny Muslims from all over the world and aspiring to create a caliphate, Hamas is an exclusively Palestinian Islamist militant organisation and a political party that describes itself as a “Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement.”

While it is possible that the conflict in Gaza may galvanise aspiring jihadist foreign fighters to travel to the conflict zone and join the Hamas cause, so far there are no clear indications that such mobilisation may be underway, be that in the Western Balkans or elsewhere. Historically the number of foreign fighters known to have joined Hamas has been very limited and there has been no reporting of any militants from the Western Balkans ever joining them.

Therefore, judging from prior experience, current circumstances, and the specific political and geographic characteristics of this conflict, the risk that the war in Gaza will attract a new wave of Western Balkans foreign fighters similar to that in Syria and Iraq is very low. However, that assessment could change if the conflict spread beyond Gaza.


Porous borders, guns, and paramilitary violence

The 7 October 2023 terrorist attacks on Israel and the outbreak of war in Gaza corresponded with a significant escalation between Serbia and Kosovo, once again highlighting the strained security situation in a region plagued by intractable “frozen conflicts.” Against this backdrop of fragile balances in the Western Balkans, converging security pressures originating from the war in Gaza as the conflict stretches on, risk compounding the region’s security challenges. As such, for a thorough assessment of possible security implications of external factors (in this case the war in Gaza) we must also take into account current regional dynamics in the Western Balkans, and the security threats and vulnerabilities they have generated. 

On 24 September 2023, a heavily armed Serbian paramilitary group of at least 30 gunmen attacked the Kosovo Police near a Serb-dominated village in the northern part of Kosovo, a country where ethnic Albanians form the overall majority. One police officer was killed by a remotely detonated anti-personnel landmine and another one was injured. Three gunmen were also killed by Kosovo’s special forces during the ensuing stand-off, a few others were arrested, and the rest fled into neighbouring Serbia, leaving behind a large arsenal of military-grade weapons, ammunition, and tactical equipment.

Statements by the Kosovar Prime Minister Mr Albin Kurti and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Mr Josep Borell, described the deadly incident as a terrorist attack and condemned it. The Kosovar Prime Minister further claimed that the “criminal and terrorist attack [was carried out] by the organised crime with the political, financial, and logistical backing of official Belgrade”, thus openly accusing the neighbouring country of being behind it. While Serbia’s authorities denied the accusations, the vice president of the main ethnic Serb party in Kosovo, Mr Milan Radoičić, sanctioned in 2021 by the United States Department of the Treasury for his links to transnational organised crime, admitted to organising and leading the attack and resigned his political position. Though Mr Radoičić was arrested in Belgrade following the confession, he was released soon after. Despite the Red Notices issued by Interpol on 7 December 2023, neither Mr Radoičić nor any of the other gunmen who fled to Serbia have been extradited to Kosovo or made to face any legal consequences for their actions. The fact that they remain free adds to the security threat landscape in the region.

What makes this paramilitary attack even more serious is that it was not an isolated incident. Instead, it was the latest in a chain of escalatory violent attacks by ethnic Serbs targeting Kosovo’s law enforcement authorities and NATO peacekeeping troops over the past year. Furthermore, the large arsenal of military-grade weapons seized by the police and the rather large number of militants involved in the attack highlights how porous the borders continue to be and how easily militant groups can smuggle and deploy operatives and weapons across them. What is more, they also suggested that this was a large scale and well-funded operation that not only could have resulted in many more casualties, but it could have destabilised Kosovo and potentially sparked a conflagration of regional proportions.