A leading Balkan-based website covering the region’s politics published in late March a comprehensive study on Israeli-Balkan relations and the threat of Hezbollah, along with its chief sponsor Iran.
“While the Israelis are, of course, concerned by the occasional manifestations of neo-Nazism, they are currently focusing on Hezbollah – and behind it, Iran – as the main potential threat to their own interests. Israeli diplomats, tourists and local Jewish populations are all regarded as potential targets. In contrast to the case with Balkan-Sunni extremists, however, relatively little research has been published on Hezbollah in the Balkans today,” wrote Chris Deliso, the author of the study.
The new report, titled “Israeli security concerns and the Balkans,” was published on the website Balkanalysis.com.
His investigation is based on interviews with leading Israeli counterterrorism experts.
Dr. Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter- Terrorism in Herzliya, was quoted in the study as saying that “there is a clear pattern. Iran begins [in small countries] with diplomatic relations, investment promises and cultural relations. But all Iranian diplomatic and cultural activities carried out are under the control of their intelligence services.”
“For Iran, the Balkans is a good platform for two reasons. First, countries like Bosnia have already been long penetrated. Second, the local security and law enforcement are not sufficiently prepared for an adversary like Iran,” he continued.
The study cited the cases of Hezbollah’s involvement in Bulgaria and Cyprus, and noted that Hezbollah operatives traveled with passports from Western European countries, permitting greater latitude for avoiding suspicion from the local authorities.
Bulgarian former interior minister Tsvetan Tvetanov reiterated his claims in Brussels on Thursday that the bombing of an Israeli tour bus last July in Burgas, Bulgaria, was the work of Hezbollah.
“We can make a grounded assumption that the militant wing of Hezbollah is the mastermind and perpetrator of the terrorist act in Burgas,” said Tvetanov, according to the Standart, a Bulgarian daily.
The bombing resulted in the deaths of five Israelis, a Bulgarian national and one of the three suspected Hezbollah operatives.
Meanwhile, a Cypriot court last month convicted Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a self-confessed member of Hezbollah, of plotting to murder Israelis.
He was sentenced to a four-year prison term.
Yossi Melman, a veteran Israeli journalist on intelligence and strategic affairs who wrote for Haaretz and now contributes to The Jerusalem Report, told Deliso, “Israeli agencies know that Iran’s MOIS [Ministry of Intelligence and Security] and the Quds Force [a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for foreign operations] have established sleeper cells of agents and they try to locate weak links in the European chain. One such a weak link is the Balkans.”
The report noted that local conditions in the Balkans make for “an attractive target for Hezbollah and Iran,” according to Melman, and that “the decision to expand the Israeli diplomatic presence [in the Balkans] is a by-product of budgetary reasons, economic potential and yes, also the desire to challenge and stand up to Iran and Hezbollah terrorism.”
The study cited the journalist as stating that “excellent cooperation” exists between Israel and local Balkan intelligence services. He added that those agencies that “lack technological capacities and are weak in analysis, and certainly in monitoring outside elements like Iran – here enter the CIA and the Mossad to help them. The Burgas inquiry is a good example of such an international cooperation, combining local and international knowledge and understanding,” he said.
Discussions are under way among the 27 European Union member nations to ban Hezbollah because of the Cyprus and Bulgarian cases.