Choosing sides: the impact of the conflict in Gaza on inter-ethnic relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina

  Focus - Allegati
  08 febbraio 2024
  21 minuti, 23 secondi

Abstract: The new round of violence in the Middle East has reignited inter-ethnic tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country divided along its three constituent peoples: Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. As Hamas October 7 attack hit the headlines, Bosnian Serb and Croat politicians condemned the attack and showed their support for Israel. Bosniak political elites, for their part, adopted a more neutral approach, vaguely condemning Hamas’ acts while bringing the attention to the Palestinian cause. This essay discusses the repercussions of Israel’s military response to the Oct 7 attack on inter-ethnic relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina by looking into the historical, political, religious and economic drivers behind each ethnic groups’ support towards the party they chose to side with in the conflict.

Authored by Jovan Knezevic, Senior Researcher G.E.O Security and Defence

Introduction

On October 7, Hamas launched an armed attack on Israeli territory that claimed the lives of over one thousand people. Few days later, Israel responded with a military operation to allegedly neutralize Hamas’ militants and erase the group’s control over Gaza. While the costs in terms of human losses are mostly suffered by the civilian population, the conflict had significant political and economic repercussions in the region and beyond. In Bosnia-Herzegovina (hereinafter BiH or Bosnia), the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East reignited divisions among the three constituent ethnic groups: Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) with the first two siding with Israel and the latter showing their support towards Palestine. The complex, multi-ethnic, political system of Bosnia-Herzegovina was introduced by the 1995 Dayton Agreements, the peace treaty which posed an end to the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. Often described by scholars as the bloodiest war in Europe since the end of the World War II, the conflict saw Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats confront one another over the fate of Bosnia. After almost 30 years from the end of the war, tensions among the three ethnic groups persist, with remarkable implications on the country’s social, political, and economic stability. Such tensions are not only a legacy of the 1990’s war. Instead, they are the product of inflammatory ethno-nationalist discourses and policies spread by Bosnian political elites to gain consensus among the respective ethnic groups. In such a context, conflicts fought elsewhere in the world and linked to Bosnia’s internal political situation, deepen inter-ethnic divisions, further destabilizing the country’s already fragile peace.

The purpose of this essay is to analyze the repercussions of the recent conflict in the Middle East on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s internal political situation. For analytical purposes, I structured the essay as follows. In the first part, I briefly present post-Dayton Bosnia’s socio-political context by focusing on the most problematic aspects for the country’s stability. In the second part, I discuss each ethnic group’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, looking at both the reactions by political elites and that of the population. Moving on, I look into the possible security challenges that may arise as a result of the conflict in Gaza beyond the deepening of inter-ethnic divisions. Finally, I present some personal reflections vis à vis the new round of inter-ethnic tensions caused by the escalation of violence in the Middle East.

Post-Dayton Bosnia

The peculiar division along ethnic lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina was introduced by the 1995 Dayton Agreements (DA), the peace treaty that put an end to the four years long conflict between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. In order to preserve the sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the DA created a political system in which each ethnic group enjoys high levels of autonomy through the creation of two territorial entities: Republika Srpska, mostly inhabited by Bosnian Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, populated by Bosniaks and Croats (Benkova, 2016). Apart from the two entities, the DA also envisaged the creation of central institutions with a limited number of competences (foreign policy, security, customs union etc), where decision-making power is shared among the three constituent peoples. By creating such a decentralized political system, the international community hoped to achieve peaceful coexistence among the three nations. However, this proved not to be the case. After almost 30 years from the end of the conflict, inter-ethnic divisions in Bosnia persist with each ethnic group still perceiving itself as the “victim” and the other two as the perpetrators. This aspect prevents Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats to identify as one people and is exacerbated by the impunity of numerous war crimes committed during the Bosnian War, the glorification of war criminals as well as the use of nationalist rhetoric and narratives. While memories from the war do play a role in keeping these tensions alive, divisions among Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats are also the consequence of nationalist and divisive policies by Bosnian political elites. Indeed, representatives from each ethnic group pursue policies that favor the interests of their respective ethnic group exclusively (Benkova, 2016). For example, the President of RS, has often emphasized the need for the Serbs-inhabited entity to secede from BiH on the grounds that its interests are constantly threatened by the FBiH. In 2021, he took some concrete steps towards Srpska’s secession by pulling out Serbs from central institutions provoking what analysts described as “the most serious existential threat of the post-war period”. The diverging views, priorities, and interests among the three constituent peoples often result in political clashes that paralyze the decision-making process at the state-level. Indeed, according to some scholars, the Dayton Agreement, while necessary to preserve sovereignty of Bosnia, “is a power sharing pact among…belligerents that reduces political life to a single category: ethnonational identity, allowing it to permeate the full breadth of public life” (Reka, 2020). Indeed, by granting significant levels of autonomy to the two entities and allowing for veto powers to each ethnic groups at the state level, the Dayton Agreement created a dysfunctional political system in which the process for adopting state laws or reforms is very slow. Therefore, the international community’s aim to promote the harmonious coexistence among the three nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina through the DA, largely failed.

“Yesterday Srebrenica, today Gaza”: Bosniaks sided with Palestine

As Hamas’ armed attack against Israeli territory made headlines, Bosniak politicians turned to social media to express their position vis à vis the event. Zeljko Komsic, the Croat member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency (but elected mainly by Bosniaks), described Hamas’ actions as a “gesture of desperate who see terrorizing civilians as a way out”, stressing that “everything should be seen in context” (Milovan, 2023). Similarly, the Bosniak Mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karic, tweeted “for me, it is hypocritical to condemn only the Hamas attack on Israel without condemning everything that happened before and after” (N1 BiH, 2023). She then added “We must be human and condemn equally every innocent victim, both in Israel and Palestine” (N1 BiH, 2023). Both Komsic and Karic’s statements were limited to a generic condemnation of terrorism with no explicit reference to Israel as a victim of the attack. Instead, the two politicians referred to the Palestinian cause with which many Bosniaks sympathize because it reminds them of their struggles during the Bosnian War against Serb nationalist forces. The fact that both are Sunni Muslims plays a role too in the relationship between the two peoples. (Grbavac, 2023).

As the conflict escalated, Bosniak political elites did not limit themselves to commenting the recent developments in the Middle East but also drew parallels with the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. On October 10, the Mayor of Sarajevo tweeted that she was “emotionally shaken by the information that Gaza is currently without water and electricity. We who survived the siege of Sarajevo know what it feels like” (N1 BiH, 2023). Bakir Izetbegovic, leader of the Party for Democratic Action, for his part, commented: “what is happening in Gaza, reminded him of what we (Bosniaks) went through between 1992 and 1995, when we were brutally attacked and an armed embargo was imposed by the international community” (Federalna BA, 2023). He then added that Bosniaks sympathize with Palestinians as they too felt abandoned by the rest of the world during the 1990’s war. The comparisons made by the two Bosniaks politicians with events from the Bosnian War evoked painful memories among the ethnic groups. This was particularly the case with the parallel drawn with the siege of Sarajevo by the current Mayor of the Bosnia’s capital. Between 1992 and 1996, the city was subject to daily shelling by Serbian forces, with limited access to food, water and electricity. As such, the event became a symbol of the suffering but also of the resistance of Bosniak Muslims during the war. Consequently, the comparison with the current situation in Gaza, where access to power and humanitarian aid is hampered by the fighting, re-awakened collective memories among Bosniaks and reignited tensions with Bosnian Serbs.

The support for Palestine among Bosniaks was not limited to statements by political elites. Instead, several pro-Palestine rallies were organized across cities in the FBiH, the Bosniaks-Croats inhabited entity. Between October and December 2023, thousands of Bosniaks took the streets in city centers to demand the end of what they perceive to be Israel’s offensive against the Palestinians and not just a military operation to erase Hamas’ control over Gaza. During the country-wide rallies, protesters waived Palestinian as well as Bosnian flags, accused Israel of genocide and drew parallels with events from the Bosnian War. Among banners saying, “Free Palestine” and “stop the war”, protesters carried some saying: “Yesterday Srebrenica, Today Gaza”, recalling the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide, where thousands of Bosniaks were killed by Serbian nationalist forces (Radio Free Europe, 2023). Indeed, the perception that both peoples had to struggle for their freedom is what, in Bosniaks’ perspective, ties them to Palestine and the Palestinian suffering. Pro-Palestine protests were attended by political representatives as well. During the protest held in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, on October 22, the mayor took the opportunity to stress, once again, that Sarajevo knows “how it is to live without water and food and see children being killed” (Radio Sarajevo, 2023), a reference to the siege of the capital during the Bosnian War. Furthermore, at the pro-Palestine protest in Zenica, the Councilor of the Party for Democratic Action and former commander during the war, Serif Patkovic, went so far to claim that Hamas reminded him of his own unit during the war and said that he would be available to join it. The reference to such events caused harsh reactions by the other two nations because the unit was responsible for the killing of several Croats and Serbs during the war (Grbavac, 2023).

Croats’ unconditional support for Israel

Unlike their Bosniak counterparts, ethnic Croats condemnation of the Oct 7 attack was much stronger. Few hours after the attack, Borjana Kristo, the Croatian chairwoman of Bosnia’s Council of Ministers, tweeted: “I unequivocally condemn the unjust and brutal attack by Hamas against Israel and its citizens. We stand firmly with Israel in these difficult times” (Milovan, 2023). In this case, the condemnation of Hamas’ attack was explicit and strong, reinforced using the words “unequivocally condemn, unjust and brutal attack”. Furthermore, the Croat politician firmly voiced its support for Israel without making any reference to the Palestinian cause or the broader context. As in the case of Bosniak political elites, reference was made to events from the Bosnian War. Zeljana Zovko, member of the Croatian Democratic Union Party, in response to Komsic’s statement related to the Oct 7 attack, stressed that “this is not Israel’s fight against the Palestinians, but against Hamas, the terrorist group that attacked Israel” (Milovan, 2023), adding that “Croats in Central Bosnia have experience with ritual killings like those carried out by Hamas in Israel” (Milovan, 2023). The Croat politician was referring to the radicalized fighters that hailed from Islamic countries to fight alongside Bosniaks during the 1990’s war. Through this rather inflammatory parallel, the Croat politician elicited painful memories and emotions among ethnic Croats, which, in turn, reignited tensions with Bosniaks, although the relationship between Bosniaks and the “radicalized Islamic fighters” is a dated and remote one.

Apart from the support voiced by Croat politicians, there were few public displays of support toward Israel. For example, on October 7, the Croat University of Mostar projected the Israeli flag on its building which was covered by a Palestinian one few days later (Grbavac, 2023). I argue that the limited support among the public is due to the asymmetric impact the war in Gaza had on the different ethnic groups within Bosnia. The conflict triggered strong reactions by Bosniaks because the latter identified from a religious, and most importantly, from a historical point of view with the Palestinians. Memories from the 90’s war, combined with discourses by politicians, elicited emotions and images among Bosniaks and encouraged them to take the streets to show their support for the Palestinian cause. On the other hand, Croat’s ties with Israel cannot be explained neither in religious nor historical terms. This is not to say that Hamas’ attack against innocent Israeli civilians did not trigger any emotional response among ethnic Croats. I am arguing that there is no significant historical or religious tie that would encourage ethnic Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina to publicly display their support towards Israel, at least not in a sustained and consistent way. According to Valentino Grbavac, the ties between Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel are a recent development. They are the result of the role played in the local economy by an Israeli businessman, Amir Gross Kabiri (Grbavac, 2023). In 2020, Kabiri’s company, Abraham Group, saved 300 jobs after Aluminij Mostar, the largest employer in the city, declared bankruptcy. In 2021, the Israeli businessman was then appointed as Vice President of a local football club and later elected as leader of the Jewish Community of Mostar in 2022. He also played a central role in the opening of the main office of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in Bosnia in Mostar (Grbavac, 2023).

Serbs sided with Israel

Bosnian Serb political elites initial reaction to Hamas’ attack was similar to that of their Croat counterparts. On October 8, the President of Republika Srpska (RS), the Serbs-inhabited entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, tweeted: “I strongly condemn the terrorist attacks on Israel in which several hundred civilians died, more than a thousand were injured and many taken hostages. Terrorism all around the world must be defeated” (Srpska Info, 2023). As in the case of Croat political elites, the condemnation of the Oct 7 attack is strong and unequivocal. While Hamas is not directly presented as a terrorist group, the President’s call for fighting terrorism worldwide, serves this purpose. Bosnian Serbs politicians’ support for Israel is not a recent development either. In 2014, Dodik voiced support for Israel’s military operations against Palestinian rocket fire, raising the Israeli flag at the presidential palace located in Republika Srpska’s capital, Banja Luka (Linde, 2022). In 2022, he further clarified that “we in the Republika Srpska perceive Israel as a friendly state, and the Jewish people as a friendly people” and added that: “the suffering that our two peoples experienced in the last century caused by the same armies has brought us closer. That is why no one in this part of the world can better understand the Jewish people as can Serbs” (Linde, 2022). The President of RS was referring to the killings of Jews and Serbs by the Ustasha, a Croat Fascist-inspired militia, during World War II. These historical parallels made by the President of RS were only partially intended to express support toward Israel. Instead, they were a way to build and reinforce Serbs’ collective past, their struggle for freedom and serve as a positive self-representation of Serbs aimed at strengthening Bosnian Serbs’s identity and are thus part of Dodik’s ethno-nationalist politics and policies (Beglerovic, 2020). Quite surprisingly, the President of the Serbs-inhabited entity did not exploit Hamas’ October 7 attack against Israeli to spread similar narratives. In an interview with local media in late October he did, however, exploit the new wave of violence in the Middle East to remind the local population about the impossibility of peaceful coexistence among the three ethnic groups in Bosnia. Emphasizing the decades-long conflict in the Middle East, the President of Srpska compared the inability of Israeli and Palestinians to peacefully live together in the same territory to the complex, inter-ethnic relations among Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dodik argued that, as Israeli and Palestinians were forced to co-exist in the same territory by the international community, so were the three ethnic-groups in Bosnia by the 1995 Dayton Agreement (N1 Sarajevo, 2023). Therefore, unlike Bosniak and Croat political leaders who drew direct parallels with events from the 1990’s war, Dodik mostly referred to the post-conflict situation in BiH. The narratives centered around the dysfunctionality of the political system introduced by the Dayton Agreements have been spread by Dodik for decades now. According to him, as well as other Bosnian Serb politicians, the power-sharing arrangement envisioned by the international community is detrimental to the rights and the economic as well as political interests of Republika Srpska in that it allows representatives of the other ethnic-groups to veto any decision that is not in their interests (Beglerovic, 2020). In such a context, the only solution is, in Dodik’s view, the secession of the Serbs-inhabited entity (Beglerovic, 2020).

As in the case of ethnic Croats, there were no significant popular reactions among Bosnian Serbs in response to events in the Middle East. Even though Serbs in Bosnia support Israel in the latest round of violence with Hamas, their identification with the Jewish cause is not strong enough for the issue to become salient among the Bosnian Serb population. This was not the case with the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War. On that occasion, Bosnian Serbs immediately and openly sided with Russia, supporting Putin’s special operation. Indeed, beyond the religious, cultural, and historical ties, Putin’s Russia is perceived among Serbs as a trusted political ally willing to throw its diplomatic weight to protect Republika Srpska’s interests in Bosnia from those of the Federation and the “West” (Ruge, 2022). Street art works and pro-Russian gatherings were quite telling of the extent to which the Russo-Ukrainian war impacted Bosnian Serbs emotions. In that case too, the President of Srpska exploited the conflict dynamics to spread narratives of the conflict that suited his domestic interests.

Broader (potential) security implications of the Gaza conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The deepening of ethnic divisions was not the only repercussion of the Gaza conflict on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s security. Three additional, potential security challenges may arise in the country as a consequence of the new wave of violence in the Middle East. The first is the radicalization of local Muslim communities. As already discussed, the conflict in Gaza triggered a strong emotional response among Bosniaks who massively participated in country-wide rallies to voice their support for Palestine. According to Vuksanovic, this emotional impact among Muslim communities in Bosnia could be potentially misused by extremist actors to “frame the sympathy towards the Palestinians not as part of civic activism but as a conflict between Islamic and non-Islamic communities” (Vuksanovic, 2024). This framing of the conflict may find fertile ground among people who returned from Middle Eastern countries where they travelled between 2011-2016 to join jihadist groups, encouraging them to launch “lone wolf” attacks in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A second potential spill-over of the conflict is the potential increase in geo-political competition among Middle Eastern countries in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Vuksanovic, 2024), most notably Israel and Iran. Both countries are present in Bosnia. As already evidenced, Israel’s presence in the country is the consequence of the investments made by two Israeli companies, BIG Energia Holdings and M. T Abraham Group (Grbavac, 2023). Iran, for his part, mostly relies on religious and cultural initiatives to spread its influence in the country. The latter are organized by the Iranian Cultural Center and the Mulla Sudra Foundation, both based in Sarajevo (Berkolli, 2021). The continuation or the further escalation may result in a geopolitical clash between Israel and Iran (the latter being one of Palestine’s greatest supporters) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with each player attempting to increase its influence at the expense of the other (Vuksanovic, 2024). The third potential security challenge Bosnia may have to face as a result of the conflict in Gaza is a new refugee crisis. This is not to say that refugees and migrants pose a threat to the security of destination countries. However, refugee crises often lead to political and social discontent, especially in countries that lack the political will and/or the capacities to provide adequate aid and resources to people in need, as in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Due to its the lack of resources and internal political frictions, BiH already proved to be unable to provide adequate, humane treatment for migrants and asylum-seekers (Human Rights Watch, 2019). EU’s border externalization of borders strategy also played a role by placing the burden of the crisis management on Bosnia and other countries in EU’s periphery (Broll, 2021). Consequently, a new wave of refugees and asylum seekers attempting to reach the European Union through Bosnia-Herzegovina may further destabilize the country while also increasing tensions between BiH and the EU (Vuksanovic, 2024).

Conclusions

Israel’s armed response to the Oct 7 attacks deepened inter-ethnic divisions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The conflict triggered a “verbal” conflict among political representatives of the three nations as did the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2022, when Bosniaks and Croats sided with Ukraine while Serbs voiced their support for their historical ally, Russia. The conflict in Gaza, for its part, saw Serbs andCroats on the Israeli side while Bosniaks sided with Palestinians. As tensions escalated in the first days of the war, representatives from the three ethnic groups drew parallels with events from the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, eliciting painful emotions and triggering a new wave of inter-ethnic tensions within the country. While it is highly unlikely that the conflict in the Middle East will trigger physical violence among the three nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, its continuation or escalation will give political elites in BiH a cheap, yet effective tool to pursue their interests with significant implications on the country’s stability.

The security environment within the country may further deteriorate as a result of the rise of local extremism among Muslim communities, the increase of geopolitical frictions between Israel and Iran in the region and a new refugee crisis. While these are potential security threats at the time of writing, they may materialize in the future the longer the conflict in Gaza lasts. Finally, the incapacity among the three-ethnic groups to adopt a common, shared position vis à vis the conflict further demonstrated the deficiencies of the Dayton Agreement and evidenced the need for its revision.

Bibliography

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