Israel’s military stirred up a storm by participating in a military parade Sunday to celebrate the Croatian victory in a battle against Serbia, The Times of Israel has learned.
The fact that Israeli fighter jets and their pilots actively took part in a parade to celebrate the 1995 “Operation Storm,” which killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands, triggered harsh criticism from Belgrade.
“Serbia is deeply disappointed about the participation of Israeli pilots and fighter jets today, because for us Operation Storm in 1995 was a kind of pogrom,” the country’s ambassador to Israel, Milutin Stanojevic, told The Times of Israel on Sunday morning.
Almost the entire Serb population of the area was removed from their homes by military force during the operation.
“It was the biggest exodus of a nation since the Second World War,” Stanojevic said, adding that Israel’s participation in Croatia’s victory celebration “is not a friendly gesture toward Serbia.”
On Sunday, Croatian media showed photos of at least two Israeli F-16s flying over the city of Knin, between Zagreb and Split, together with Croatian MiG-21s.
According to a Croatian website, Brigadier General (Ret.) Mishel Ben Baruch, who heads the defense ministry’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate, said it was “an honor to be able to participate” in the 23rd anniversary of Operation Storm.
Israel is the first foreign country to actively participate in Croatia’s annual parade to celebrate Operation Storm, the ambassador said.
However, Croatian media reported Sunday that US officials also attended this year’s celebration of Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and Veterans Day at Knin.
“For the Croatian side, maybe these are days of triumph, but for the Serbian side these are days of mourning,” Stanojevic added. “We mourn the exodus. More than 2,500 people died. The resting place of many is not known. More than 250,000 people fled Croatia, mostly civilians. This is not the time or the place where another country should be involved.”
The exact number of the dead and displaced is a matter of dispute.
While Croatia hailed the offensive as a flawless military victory that reunited the country’s territory and ended the war, Serbia mourned the victims of the attack. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told a gathering late Saturday that “Hitler wanted a world without Jews; Croatia and its policy wanted a Croatia without Serbs.”
The participation of three Israeli F-16 Barak jets is taking place against a backdrop of Israeli-Croatian arms deals worth half a billion dollars. In January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic announced their plans to move forward with the sale of about 30 Israeli F-16s to Croatia.
The deal is expected to be completed by 2020.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment.
The IDF defended its participation in the event, saying in a statement that the jets were deployed in Croatia as part of a military cooperation arrangement, and that participating in the event was part of that “strategic cooperation between both countries.” The statement also noted the impending Israeli-Croatian arms deal.
President Reuven Rivlin visited both Zagreb and Belgrade last week, stressing Israel’s good ties with both nations.
“Croatia and Israel are small countries but full of energy,” he said at a July 24 defense conference in Zagreb, according to the website of Croatia’s defense ministry.
“We wish to continue developing defense industry and this is the right opportunity to see the state-of-the-art technology offered by our country,” he added.
Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krstičević said at the conference that Croatia and Israel “share similar experiences of hard-won independence and are therefore aware of the importance of maintaining the readiness of the national states for new security threats.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.