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Ties that bind: Israel-Gaza conflict and the Balkans



As the siege of Gaza proceeds, animosity related to the conflict between Israel and Gaza arises within the Balkans. Sympathies towards foreign actors are not new for the Balkan countries: both the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the one in the Nagorno-Karabakh region contributed in reinforcing division of views within the Balkans. Aggravated by the socio-economic background, the Middle Eastern conflict once again enhances concerns in terms of radicalization, just as during the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Foreign fighters phenomenon

Historically, Islam was first introduced to the Balkans in the 15th century, during the Ottoman Empire. Local people started gradually and voluntarily converting to Islam - with the exception of the Devshirme - mainly because it brought advantages in terms of tax exemption. Since then, Muslims have become the first religious community both in Bosnia and Kosovo, but we can find high percentages of Muslims in countries like Albania, North Macedonia, and Montenegro. The formation of the Balkan states after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, however, saw the area adopt nationalistic and antagonistic policies towards the Muslim population, as well as strategies of assimilation and forced homologation of the Islamic community. In the nineties, as the Balkans were struggling with the conflicts, a revival of the Islamic faith took place: endorsed, on one side, by foreign investments led by Saudi Arabia - and other Gulf countries - and on the other by Turkey, mujahideens arrived to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims. It was precisely then that the danger of jihad emerged: by bringing many foreign fighters to the region, the radicalization of the area began. This led, later in time, to the involvement of foreign fighters, mainly from Kosovo and Bosnia, in the Syrian and Iraqi wars: from 2012 to 2016, over 1,070 Western Balkan citizens traveled to Syria and Iraq, primarily joining the terrorist organization of the 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, as we mentioned earlier, was largely the result of long-term and targeted radicalization, recruitment, and mobilization efforts led by transnational jihadist networks operating in the region. Also, those who went to Syria between 2012-2013 cited the desire for a better life, concerns about the humanitarian conditions of civilians, and the desire to help Muslims.


For these reasons, the Palestinian issue resonates significantly in the region: concerns have been raised about the Israel-Hamas conflict attracting another wave of foreign fighters, including from the Western Balkans. Several studies argue that socio-economic conditions of marginalization and poverty among young males are to blame for Kosovo’s radicalization. Extremism is chosen from a lack of perspective, and it usually stems from individuals with a lack of a defined identity. Political and economic factors like corrupt governments, the general lack of economic prospects, and high youth unemployment are also significant in that sense. These socio-economic and political premises, combined with the number of citizens who have traveled to Syria and the data on arrests linked to terrorism charges, put Kosovo in the spotlight on the issue. However, even if jihadist foreign fighters might travel to the conflict zone, to date, no signs of such mobilization have been observed.

Security concerns and Balkan stability

The outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war raised, however, security concerns about a renewed wave of irregular arrivals and potential terrorist infiltrations into the EU through the Western Balkan route: this led to Schengen Area countries like Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Slovakia and France reintroducing in late 2023 temporary border controls at their internal borders. At the same time, Israel’s National Security Council (NSC) updated travel warnings for many European countries in early December 2023: Albania and Bosnia Herzegovina were valued as destinations with level 3 (moderate threat) - the highest advisory level for the NSC being four. The Israel-Hamas war is also a challenge to the Balkan area’s stability: at the very beginning of the war, acts of vandalism targeting Jewish cemeteries or monuments honoring the memory of the Holocaust victims were recorded in countries like Croatia, Greece, and Montenegro. Alongside, there has also been a considerable increase in hate speech online, mostly in line with what happens on social media platforms in the EU and the United States, where hate speech has spiked since the terrorist attacks of October 7 2023. Finally, thousands of demonstrators in the Balkan countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia, rallied in support of Palestinians.


With this background, concerns about the foreign fighters phenomenon emerged once again. However: extremists groups represent only a small percentage of the total Muslim population, and if we compare foreign fighters in terms of total Muslim population, the Muslim population in the Balkans produces a smaller percentage of foreign fighters (0.011%–0.018%) than, for instance, France (0.04%). When compared to Bosnian Muslims, Belgian Mulims are 4.7 times more likely to become foreign fighters. Finally, the foreign fighters phenomenon seems to have been put on hold; however, many signs of discontent emerged, which could fuel a spiral of radicalization.

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