Anticipating a Gaza truce

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

The Houthis have stepped up attacks in the Red Sea while an Iraqi militia targeted an Israeli port city. Could this be an eleventh-hour escalation before a possible truce in Gaza, asks Ahmed Mustafa

Houthi attacks
photo: AP


Despite intensified efforts to broker a deal to end the war in Gaza, the Israeli offensive on Rafah continues. Attacks against Israel are escalating as a result: Iran, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq continue to aim their drones and missiles at Israel and any ships with ties to it in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

It might look like an eleventh-hour flare-up before the anticipated ceasefire to end the massacres in Gaza. Many analysts feel Yemen’s Houthis in particular will not stop threatening and attacking Western targets until the war on Palestinians stops. That was the pledge they made at the start of their campaign in November last year, and it seems they are living up to it so far.

Military efforts by the US, the UK and other Western countries to deter the Houthis have had a limited effect. The naval forces in the Red Sea appear to have made hardly a dent in Houthi military capabilities. In the last few days the Houthis have stepped up their attacks on US Navy vessels and commercial ships in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in response to joint American and British raids on what have been described as Houthi targets inside Yemen last week, which left dozens of Yemenis dead and injured.

Though the US and the UK said the air raids and bombings were “in self-defence”, to destroy the Yemeni rebels’ ability to threaten maritime shipping through the Strait of Bab Al-Mandeb, the strike looks more like a vendetta.  A day before it began last week, Houthis released photos of an American MQ-9 Reaper drone claiming they had downed it with a surface-to-air missile. That was the third US drone downed in a month.

The Associated Press said that the footage is of the multimillion-dollar drone downed in Yemen’s central Marib province. The Pentagon did not confirm that the US Air Force lost a drone, and many understood this to mean that it was being operated by the CIA. American and British air raids left at least 16 dead and more than 40 injured, all of whom the Houthis describe as Yemeni civilians.

Houthi official Mohamed Al-Bukhaiti wrote on his X account: “The American-British aggression will not prevent us from continuing our military operations in support of Palestine… We will meet escalation with escalation.”

Just hours after the raids, the Houthis launched anti-ballistic missiles and armed drones targeting a US aircraft carrier, a US destroyer and three vessels in the Red Sea, according to their Spokesman Yahya Saree. They also targeted three ships in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, one of which reportedly suffered damage. The US military did not deny the attacks on the aircraft carrier or the destroyer, but said that they thwarted the attack with no damage to their naval assets.

Meanwhile, the Iran-backed “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” announced last week that it carried out “an attack targeting a vital Israeli target in occupied Umm Al-Rashash (Eilat) in southern occupied Palestine”. The Iraqi group said in a statement that one-way drones were used in the operation, reiterating that the operation was “in response to the Israeli massacres against Palestinian civilians in Gaza” and affirming that its fighters “would continue to strike enemy strongholds”.

Almost daily rocket and drone attacks are carried out across the border from Lebanon by Hizbullah while Israel strikes southern Lebanon, too. But the most disruptive campaign is that of the Houthis. It has forced a sharp drop in maritime shipping through the Red Sea. The total number of vessels going through the maritime route fell from 1094 in November to 85 in March, then rose back to 159 in April. Much of the traffic has gone around the Cape of Good Hope.

The impact of the Iraqi attack was strong in Eilat, however, where the Israeli media reported last week that the port was shut down and the mood sombre. The daily Jerusalem Post quoted Gideon Golber, the CEO of the Port of Eilat, describing the situation: “The Houthis are trying to suffocate Eilat and its economy. The remaining Israeli ports are absorbing shipments delivered through the Red Sea, but Eilat has unused logistics equipment and personnel.” He added: “Many ships moving between Israel and Asia need to reroute around Africa to avoid the Houthi attacks off Yemen’s coast. This adds time and costs to the shipments, which also increases the risk of attacks from other places, like the coast of South Africa or the Strait of Gibraltar.”

Though the Israelis downplay the economic significance of the closure, as Eilat port handles no more than five per cent of Israeli shipping, the case of the city is symbolic. Many Israeli analysts expect more serious issues if the northern front comes under threat and the ports of Haifa and Ashdod are impacted. The Israeli media carried comments by business leaders and officials stressing the need for the United States to be “more active” in stopping the Houthis’ attacks, but for the time being that does not seem unachievable.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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