From Sarafovo to Hezbollah: The legacy of the Bourgas Airport terrorist attack, one year on
July 18 2013, a year to the day from the terrorist attack at Bulgaria’s Sarafovo Airport at Bourgas that left five Israelis, a Bulgarian and a bomber dead, will find a new monument to the victims in place – but the final details of the investigation and the issue of the EU declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organisation still unresolved.
The Bulgarian-led international investigation into the terrorist outrage that was the attack on a tourist bus carrying Israeli visitors to the Black Sea coast established that members of Hezbollah’s military wing were the perpetrators.
However, the real identity of the bearer of the bomb remains unknown, and his accomplices – found by investigators to have been Lebanon-based but also holders, respectively, of Canadian and Australian passports – have so far eluded justice.
The terrorist attack did nothing to damage, but in fact strengthened, the already solid relations between Sofia and Jerusalem that had been further built up in recent years. The negative impact on Israeli tourism to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast was short-lived, as the efforts by the Bulgarian and Israeli governments to assure Israeli tourists of their security bore fruit. This summer, there are still Israeli tourists arriving at Sarafovo Airport to visit Bulgaria’s resorts. All that the terrorist attack changed was that security, both visible and more discreet, has been significantly stepped up.
The attack came a few months before the planned joint commemorations by Bulgaria and Israel of the 70th anniversary of the World War 2 high drama in which religious, civil society and some political leaders in Bulgaria stepped forth bravely to prevent the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi-run Holocaust death camps, saving them from sharing the fate of the six million Jews murdered at the hands of Hitler and his genocidal machinery.
If anything, the two events – Sarafovo and the 70th anniversary commemoration – combined to strengthen the emotional and political impetus of relations between the two countries.
Yet, there have been and remain a number of complexities.
It was in early 2013 that Bulgaria announced that the initial findings of its investigations in the previous months had established the Hezbollah connection. With this fact a potentially significant factor in the EU declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organisation emerged.
The announcement of what the investigation had found by that point did not escape tawdry domestic politics.
The leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the largest opposition party in Parliament, Sergei Stanishev said that the investigation failed to find “categorical proof” about the co-conspirators or the organisation behind the attack. Pointing the finger at Hezbollah further endangered Bulgarian citizens, he said.
“It is completely unacceptable from a national security point of view and the risks assumed in this way, especially in regard to the people of Bulgaria, the ordinary citizens,” Stanishev said. It was a stance that was to earn Stanishev (whose party would take power in May after parliamentary elections in which it ran second, but gained the mandate to govern by default after centre-party GERB won the most votes but was left without potential allies in Parliament) a favourable mention on a Hezbollah website, a fact that in turn led to the socialist leader being lampooned by his critics.
The leader of ultra-nationalist party Ataka, Volen Siderov – whose previous writings and statements have led to allegations against him of, among other things, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – went much further, dismissing the announcement as succumbing to pressure from foreign capitals.
“I think this is the game of US and Israel, who are trying to jam us into it in order to create an artificial front and enemies,” Siderov said.
After the BSP came to power, reported remarks by Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin that there was only an “indication” of Hezbollah involvement in the Bourgas Airport terrorist attack led to interpretations that the socialist government was backtracking, but Vigenin – in statements and meetings with the ambassadors of Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom, among others – hastened to underline that this was not the case.
Tsvetlin Yovchev, Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the socialist government, also has underlined that there is no change in the Bulgarian position. A former intelligence agency head, Yovchev said that his “expert opinion” on the basis of the facts and conclusions with which he had been presented, was that the findings announced were correct and he supported them.
Bulgaria, however, already from the time of the caretaker government that was headed by then-prime minister and foreign minister Marin Raykov, has made it clear that its role was to present the conclusions to its European partners and allow them to achieve a consensus position on the issue, which Sofia in turn would support.
On the July 18 anniversary of the terrorist attack, the latest of a series of meetings of experts at EU level was to discuss the issue of Hezbollah being deemed a terrorist organisation by the EU.
It has remained an open question whether the required consensus will be achieved. The UK recently has been in the lead in pressing for the declaration of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. It has the support of France, Germany and the Netherlands, heavyweights in the bloc of (since July 1, with the accession of Croatia) 28 members, but other governments – Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy – have had reservations. A school of thought within the bloc is that declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organisation could further destabilise Lebanon where Hezbollah is involved in the government.
On July 15, a report in Israeli daily Haaretz said that EU foreign ministers were “most likely”: to Hezbollah’s military wing to the EU’s list of designated terrorist organisations when they meet on July 22, according to high-ranking foreign ministry officials in Jerusalem.
Foreign ministry officials in Jerusalem were cautiously optimistic, the report said. “There’s a good chance that an agreement will be reached to add Hezbollah to the list of terrorist groups as early as next Monday’s (July 22) meeting,” a high-ranking Israeli official said.
The US administration, meanwhile, was pressing several EU countries including Austria and Malta, which are still on the fence, and was hopeful the move will succeed next week. Senior American officials said they felt the reluctant countries could be persuaded to approve the measure, which they said was important.
While these processes are unfolding, the ceremony at Bourgas Airport will see the unveiling of a monument to the Israeli and Bulgarian victims of the terrorist attack.
The monument contains symbolic elements referencing the Star of David, as well as a crescent, the latter in tribute to the Muslim faith of the Bulgarian victim. Designed by an Israeli, the monument has been crafted by a team of Bulgarian sculptors. At the ceremony, medics and others who assisted in dealing with those injured in the attack will be handed certificates of appreciation from the State of Israel.