Belgrade to Beersheba: Serbian Arms Flown to Israel During Assault on Gaza

A joint investigation by BIRN and Haaretz has identified six Israeli military flights from Belgrade to Beersheba this year that coincided with Serbian arms exports to Israel worth 15.7 million euros, arms that risk being used in violating international humanitarian law in Gaza.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on February 5, a planespotter was filming from a field next to Belgrade airport when he spotted what he described as a “rare” aircraft coming in to land.

The aircraft enthusiast posted the video to his YouTube channel, identifying the plane as a Boeing 707-300. “I had a pleasure to record this magnificent classic bird today at Belgrade Airport!” he wrote in English.

With the serial number 272, the plane belongs to the Israeli military. After a few hours’ rest, it took off at precisely 6.04 p.m., into a winter sky painted pink by the setting sun.

It is unlikely it was empty. Information obtained from a portal that collates Serbian business data shows that in February, Serbia’s main state-owned arms trader, Yugoimport-SDPR, exported weapons worth 510,000 euros to Israel.

As the plane was sitting on the tarmac of Belgrade airport, Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, took to X, formerly Twitter, to say that some 100,000 people had been killed, injured or were missing in the war in Gaza, and that “80 percent of the population has been displaced, most several times”.

Within two hours of Lazzarini’s post, open-source flight-tracking websites showed the Boeing heading towards Nevatim air base, just outside the city of Beersheba in south-east Israel.

A joint investigation by BIRN and Haaretz found that the February 5 flight was one of six coinciding with Serbian arms sales to Israel since October 2023, when the militant group Hamas killed 1,175 people, according to statistics compiled by Haaretz, and took 252 hostages in an unprecedented attack on Israel. At least 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s military response in Gaza, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

But if the February flight earned Serbia half a million euros, two in March coincided with an arms deal worth more than 14 million, as Belgrade ignored widespread calls – including one on February 23 by a group of UN experts – for countries to halt the flow of weapons to Israel given the risk of them being used in violating international humanitarian law.

Most recently, on May 26, despite UN Human Rights Council’s call to cease the sale and transfer of arms to Israel, three Israeli military planes landed at Belgrade airport, spent several hours on the tarmac and then headed back towards Nevatim air base. These flights coincided with arms exports to Israel in May worth 1.17 million euros.

In total, BIRN and Haaretz identified seven Israeli military flights to Serbia since October 2023 and an eighth conducted by a privately-owned aircraft of a kind known to transport various types of cargo, including arms. Six of these eight flights directly correlated with arms exports.

But Serbia is not in it just for the money, said foreign policy analyst Bosko Jaksic.

President Aleksandar Vucic uses the country’s arms exports to strengthen his position with the West, he said. But shipments to Israel risk making Serbia “complicit in the mass murder of Palestinians”, Jaksic told BIRN and Haaretz.

“Increasing the export of weapons and ammunition to Israel right now cannot be a matter of pride,” he said. “When Israel is being sued for genocide before the International Court of Justice, complicity in the mass murders of Palestinians brings honour to no one.”

Serbia’s support for Israel, ‘in word and deed’
On February 26, three weeks after the planespotter filmed the first arrival of the Boeing 707-300 in Belgrade, Vucic spoke by phone to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Posting on Instagram afterwards, Vucic said they had discussed “further advancement of bilateral relations”. Netanyahu seemed more excited, describing Vucic as “a true friend of Israel”.

“I expressed my gratitude for his unwavering support, both in word and deed,” the Israeli leader wrote on X. It was Day 143 of Israel’s assault on Gaza, in which many of those killed were women and children.

Fast forward another three weeks, to March 18, and two Israeli air force planes landed at Belgrade airport in quick succession. The first was the same Boeing as on February 5. According to data from open-source flight-tracking websites, it landed at 4.37 p.m. and departed at 8.04 p.m.

Forty-two minutes later, an Israeli Lockheed C-130 military transport aircraft landed.

Both headed back towards Nevatim air base, and customs data for that month show that Yugoimport-SDPR exported arms worth around 14 million euros to Israel – the largest deliveries in years.

More were to come. On May 26, three Israeli military planes landed in quick succession: first, the Boeing 707-300 landed sometime after 10.20 a.m. and left at 14.10 p.m.; then came two Israeli Lockheed C-130s, including the same plane that flew to Belgrade on March 18. They both left within a few hours.

Serbian customs data for May shows that these flights coincided with arms shipments to Israel worth 1.17 million euros.

Since the month of the Hamas attack, Serbia has exported in total 16.3 million euros worth of weapons to Israel. Besides the February, March and May shipments this year, worth a total of 15.7 million euros, Serbia had previously exported arms to Israel worth 540,120 euros in October.

The Serbian government has said nothing about the contents of the shipments, and on March 8 Serbia’s Ministry of Trade rejected a Freedom of Information request filed by BIRN asking it to specify when the export permit was issued and what kind of weapons have been delivered, declaring the information “strictly confidential”.

The six flights coinciding with arms shipments all came after the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest court, on January 26 ordered Israel to prevent its forces from committing or inciting genocidal acts against Palestinians, in response to a genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel. A final ruling on whether Israel has actually committed genocide in Gaza could take years.

On April 5, the UN Human Rights Council backed a call “to cease the sale, transfer and diversion of arms, munitions and other military equipment to Israel… to prevent further violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights”.

And on May 20, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague applied to the court for arrest warrants to be issued against Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as against three Hamas leaders for crimes of extermination, murder, hostage-taking, rape, sexual assault and torture.

What Serbia has to offer Israel
Israel already gets plenty of weapons from the US, which has executed an unprecedented arms airlift to the country involving hundreds of military cargo planes and chartered Boeing 747s, landing mainly at the Nevatim air base near Beersheba. Other weapons have arrived by ship, amid rising tensions with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

At one point, with stockpiles running low, the Israeli army began using artillery shells marked “for training only” and munitions produced in 1953, Haaretz has reported. According to US military guidelines, such explosives have a maximum shelf life of 40 years.

“The sacks were torn; they stank and they disintegrated when we lifted them up,” an Israeli soldier said.

According to Serbian military expert Vlada Radulovic, Israel is in need of guided and unguided munitions for aircraft, especially aerial bombs for penetrating bunkers and underground facilities, rockets for air defence systems, medium-calibre ammunition, tank and artillery shells and infantry weapons.

“Additional quantities of small calibre ammunition for small arms as well as mortar mines are also necessary,” Radulovic told BIRN.

Serbia’s 155mm artillery shells, produced by state-owned firm Krusik, are in high demand, he said, and not just in the Middle East.

“Accordingly, Serbia is recognised on the world market as a country that, among other things, produces high-quality ammunition of small, medium and large calibre, including 155 mm shells, as well as mortar mines of different calibre, so this would potentially be an area of interest for Israel,” said Radulovic.

Another arms expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Serbia might also be selling explosives to Israel as components for domestic production.

Serbian arms exports to Israel prior to October 2023 were not huge. Serbia’s Ministry of Trade last mentioned Israel in its annual arms export report in 2020, when Serbia exported roughly 554,000 euros worth of weapons to the country – “bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, other explosive devices; ammunition and lighters for ammunition”.

Among the end-users, however, were not just Israel but also Senegal and Slovakia, indicating that the weapons were re-exported through Israel.

In March, April and June last year, the state-owned Prvi Partizan factory in Uzice, southwestern Serbia, exported around 1.14 million euros of arms to Israel.

Also, in March 2023, a predominantly privately-owned Serbian arms manufacturer, Edepro, exported around 285,768 euros to Israel.

Israel fails to vote on UN Srebrenica resolution
There was a time when weapons allegedly went the other way.

Israel has been repeatedly linked in media reports to arms deliveries to Bosnian Serb forces during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, in contravention of a UN arms embargo.

In 2016, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a court ruling the previous year that rejected a request for information concerning defence export licences and decisions made by the Israeli defence ministry on defence exports to the former Yugoslavia between 1990 and 1996.

In April this year, Israel’s ambassador to Serbia, Jahel Vilan, was quoted as telling the Serbian-language arm of Russia’s Sputnik media outlet that Israel has never accepted the characterisation of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces as genocide – contrary to rulings at the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague and by Bosnian courts.

On May 24, Israel was among 22 countries that failed to vote at the UN General Assembly on a resolution establishing an annual International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica on July 11.

The resolution passed, with 84 countries voting in favour, 19 against and 68 countries abstaining. Serbia’s Vucic condemned the resolution as “highly politicised”.

“This resolution will open a Pandora’s Box; you are going to face dozens of this type of resolution on the genocide issue,” he said at the UN General Assembly .

Jaksic said that Serbian authorities and their affiliated media liked to interpret Israel’s refusal to support the resolution as a gesture of support for Serbia. In fact, he claimed, “Israel does not recognise the genocide in Bosnia in order to defend itself from accusations it has committed genocide in Gaza”.

Two more flights between Serbia and Israel
Besides the three flights to Belgrade identified by BIRN and Haaretz in February and March, as well as three flights on May 26 alone, there were two others to Nis in southern Serbia.

One on December 28 last year involved another Israeli military C-130, serial number 420, which again flew toward Nevatim air base, like all Israeli flights from Serbia.

The other occurred on May 15, when a Ukrainian-registered Antonov AN-12BK plane flew from Nis to Tel Aviv in Israel. Soviet-era Antonovs are sometimes used to carry arms and other hazardous goods and in 2013 the Israeli Aviation Authority authorised this specific Antonov, registration UR-CGV, to carry explosives from Germany to Israel.

In July 2022, an Antonov AN-12BK crashed in Greece carrying 12 tonnes of Serbian arms, killing eight Ukrainian crew members. The plane had been leased by a Ukrainian company called Meridian but was supposedly taking the weapons to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Almost two years on, there remain many unanswered questions about the doomed flight, not least the identity of those who died.

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