Yemen to target Israel-linked ships

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 12 Dec 2023

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen reaffirm threats to ships stopping at Israeli ports crossing the Red Sea, with some shipping companies rerouting their vessels as a result, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Yemen to target  Israel-linked ships


Last Sunday the French military said a French frigate in the Red Sea shot down two drones on their way to it from the coast of Yemen. This occurred one day after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen threatened to attack vessels heading to Israeli ports, regardless of whether the ship’s ownership is linked to the Jewish state, unless more food and medicine were allowed into the Gaza Strip.

On Saturday, a Houthi military spokesperson said all ships sailing to Israeli ports are banned from the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. “If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that it took effect immediately.

According to a French general staff press release, “the interception and destruction of these two identified threats were carried out late Saturday by the frigate Languedoc, which operates in the Red Sea.” The French navy said the drones were coming “straight towards” the Languedoc frigate from Hodeida, a Houthi-held port city.

Earlier this month, three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters, prompting a US Navy destroyer to intervene in what looked like an hours-long naval battle. Last month the Houthis, who rule much of Yemen and its Red Sea coast, also attacked a British-owned cargo ship with links to an Israeli company.

Since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza in early October, Yemen has been active in attacking Israel and its interests. The Houthis have fired several ballistic missiles and drones at Eilat, all of which were intercepted or missed their targets. The latest attack was last week, when Israel shot down a ballistic missile over the Red Sea.

Last month, the Houthis had targeted Israeli ships passing near Yemen, but now the Houthis have escalated, threatening any ships dealing with Israel. In a statement posted on social media, they said that all “ships linked to Israel or that will transport goods to Israeli ports” are not welcome in the Red Sea. The statement added, “we warn all ships and companies against dealing with Israeli ports.”

The Houthis continue to hold a vehicle transport ship linked to Israel that they seized last month near Hodeida. Though Israel denied any link to the ship at the time, news reports identified the ship as the Galaxy Leadersailing under the flag of the Bahamas, a popular place for ship registration because of tax advantages. The ship is listed as a vehicle carrier owned by an Isle of Man-based firm called Ray Car Carriers Ltd., according to Marine Traffic, a real-time maritime data platform. The Isle of Man is an offshore jurisdiction of the UK. The New York Times later reported that the company’s owner “appears to have been the Israeli billionaire Rami Ungar, according to the Paradise Papers, a major leak of confidential documents that in 2017 exposed a hidden world of wealth and ownerships.”

Last week, three ships were attacked near Yemeni coasts, with an American Navy destroyer in the region involved in what looked like a “short war.” Ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis struck three commercial ships, while a US warship shot down three drones in self-defence during the hours-long assault, the US military said. The Houthis claimed two of the attacks. Their military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Saree claimed two of the 3 December attacks, saying the first vessel was hit by a missile and the second by a drone in the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait, which links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. He did not mention any US warship being involved. He added, “the Yemeni armed forces will continue to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops… The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will be a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement.”

The US military’s Central Command said in a statement: “These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security… They have jeopardised the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world”. The statement added, “we also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.” Iran repeatedly denied any responsibility, saying it did not provide the Houthis with weapons used in these attacks. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Biden administration has urged Israel not to respond to recent attacks by the Houthis. Yet, Israeli National Security Council Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi told Channel 12 that if the international community does not deal with the threat posed by the Houthis in Yemen, “Israel will act”, without elaborating.

Companies and tankers are already responding to the threats by changing their maritime routes. S&P Global reported this week that two shipping companies, Zodiac Maritime and Eastern Pacific Shipping, both with Israeli owners, have decided to divert their vessels. The companies are rerouting gas carriers away from the Red Sea.

The UK Maritime Trade Organisation (UKMTO), which coordinates between the Royal Navy and the commercial shipping industry, issued a new safety alert last Friday warning of “new efforts by unknown individuals in Yemen.” UKMTO is advising caution while requesting reports on any suspicious activity in the region.

Last week, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) used counterterrorism regulations to sanction 13 individuals and entities that it said were “responsible for providing tens of millions of dollars of foreign currency to the Houthis in Yemen.” American under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said, “the Houthis continue to receive funding and support from Iran, and the result is unsurprising: unprovoked attacks on civilian infrastructure and commercial shipping, disrupting maritime security and threatening international commercial trade.”

It is not clear if sanctions can yield any pressure on Houthis, who some analysts say have nothing to lose. Some commentators consider the Houthis to be in a better position to support Gaza, than even the better trained and equipped Iran proxy, Hizbullah in Lebanon. The latter might be closer to Israel/Palestine, but it has its own internal politics to deal with in Lebanon. The Houthis in Yemen however have decided to play an active role in this conflict.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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