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How Houthis’ hijacking of Israel-linked ship tests limits of US deterrence

  • Israel’s military on Monday called the hijacking a 'grave event'
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Houthis of hijacking the ship 'with Iran’s guidance'
Update : 22 Nov 2023, 11:54 PM

How Houthis’ hijacking of Israel-linked ship tests limits of US deterrenceYemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels hijacked a cargo vessel in the Red Sea on Sunday, taking 25 crew members hostage in an apparent attempt to escalate against Israel amid the war in Gaza.

The Houthis claimed they had seized the Galaxy Leader, which the group described as an Israeli ship, in the Red Sea on Sunday, saying they had brought it back to Yemen.

Video released Monday showed armed fighters fast-roping onto the deck from a helicopter and storming the ship’s bridge as crew members surrendered. The Yemeni faction said its forces would “deal with the ship’s crew in accordance with the teachings and values of the Islamic religion.”

The group said it would continue its attacks against Israeli targets until Israel halts its military action in the Gaza Strip, further warning “all ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or dealing with it that they will become a legitimate target.”

Israel’s military on Monday called the hijacking a “grave event” but denied the Galaxy Leader was an Israeli ship and said there had been no Israeli personnel among its crew.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Houthis of hijacking the ship “with Iran’s guidance” — a charge Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson denied on Monday. Netanyahu’s office said the ship was UK-owned and run by a Japanese firm.

Why it matters

The attack marks a new level of escalation as the Houthis have taken a prominent role among various Iran-backed militias in launching provocative attacks against Israel in response to the Israeli military’s war effort against Palestine.

The group has claimed prior attacks on shipping, but this marks the first time the Yemeni fighters have been known to seize control of a commercial vessel after insertion by helicopter.

The Houthi rebels captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2015 and have since wrested control of most of the country despite a US-backed, Saudi-led coalition military campaign to beat back their gains. 

US officials have also said the group has continued to receive arms from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps despite US-brokered peace talks with Saudi Arabia aimed at ending Yemen’s civil war.

The rebels last week renewed their threats to target commercial shipping in the region over Israel’s war. 

A US Navy destroyer and Saudi Arabia’s military thwarted a large barrage of land attack cruise missiles and drones fired from Yemen toward Israel in late October, parrying an apparent attempt by the Houthis to open a new front amid Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

In Iraq and Syria, the United States has accused Iran-backed militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, of being behind more than 60 attempted rocket and drone attacks targeting bases used by American troops since October 17 amid their fight against the remnants of the Islamic State.

Pentagon officials have sought to downplay the attacks as separate from the Israel-Hamas war, but have privately acknowledged that three rounds of US airstrikes have failed to deter the steady stream of barrages, most of which have been thwarted by coalition air defenses.

“Houthi militants’ seizure of the motor vessel Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea is a flagrant violation of international law,” a US military official told Al-Monitor. 

“We demand the immediate release of the ship and its crew. We will consult with our allies and UN partners as to appropriate next steps,” the official said. 

“We are aware of the situation and are closely monitoring it,” another US defense official also speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor.

Jared Szuba is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. This article was originally published in Al-Monitor.

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