Serbia slams Israeli envoy for celebrating Croatian ‘pogrom’

Congratulating Zagreb on its Victory Day violates ‘basic human principles of modern societies,’ Belgrade’s ambassador in Tel Aviv fumes

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israel's Ambassador to Croatia Ilan Mor, center, at a reception for Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović hosted by President Reuven Rivlin, July 30 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Israel's Ambassador to Croatia Ilan Mor, center, at a reception for Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović hosted by President Reuven Rivlin, July 30 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Serbia on Monday slammed Israel for congratulating Croatia on the occasion of Victory Day, which marks a bloody battle Serbs consider a pogrom.

“What happened to the Serbs in Croatia, who lived there for centuries, during the Operation Storm on August 4 in 1995 is unfortunately the biggest exodus of one ethnic group in Europe after World War II,” Serbia’s ambassador to Israel, Milutin Stanojevic, told The Times of Israel.

“To congratulate this pogrom to those who celebrate it every year as ‘Victory Day’ or ‘restoring sovereignty’ is against the basic human principles of modern societies. Coming from an Israeli representative, [it] is more than ironic and sad,” he added.

Earlier on Monday, Israel’s envoy in Zagreb, Ilan Mor, had published a tweet in honor of Victory Day: “Congratulations to #Croatia on the 24th anniversary of #OperationStorm, which restored its sovereignty in the Homeland War. Congratulations also on the occasion of Victory & Homeland Thanksgiving Day,” he wrote.

Several hours later, responding to a Times of Israel query, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said that, “in light of the sensitivity, the tweet was changed to correctly reflect the intentions of the ambassador and the State of Israel.”

Mor’s new tweet omitted any reference to Victory Day or Operation Storm:

Efraim Zuroff, a Jerusalem-based Holocaust historian who has long been critical of Croatia and other Central and Eastern European countries for what he says is a refusal to come clean with their respective roles in crimes against Jews, said the Israeli diplomat’s comment was uncalled for.

“This is a very unfortunate statement in very bad taste given the fact that there was a mass expulsion as part of Operation Storm, close to 200,000 Serbs were expelled from the their homes,” Zuroff told The Times of Israel. “This is a not conflict that Israel should get involved in.”

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem did not provide a comment by the time this article was published.

Jerusalem has solid diplomatic ties with Belgrade, but relations with Zagreb appear to be stronger. In late July, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović came to Jerusalem for an official state visit.

“I strongly believe that there is a bright future for the partnership between us. But a bright future must be based on a clear understanding of the past,” President Reuven Rivlin said at a state dinner in her honor, referring to the “crimes” of Croatia’s wartime Ustasha regime.

The Israeli ambassador’s tweet is not the first time the Jewish state has waded into the same controversy. Last year, Israel’s military participated in a parade celebrating Croatia’s victory.

Hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced during Operation Storm. Almost the entire Serb population of the area was removed from their homes by military force during the operation.

The IDF was the first foreign army to participate in Croatia’s victory celebration, according to the Serbian ambassador.

At the time, 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.

An Israeli and a Croatian pilot pose together in a video released by the Croatian Ministry of Defense on August 4, 2018 (YouTube screenshot)

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.

The IDF defended its participation in the 2018 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 an impending Israeli-Croatian arms deal.

“For the Croatian side, maybe these are days of triumph, but for the Serbian side these are days of mourning,” Stanojevic told The Times of Israel at the time. “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 said last year that “Hitler wanted a world without Jews; Croatia and its policy wanted a Croatia without Serbs.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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