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Dhaka Tribune

Houthis turning Red Sea into ‘crucial front line’

  • Houthi rebels in Yemen have demonstrated their support for Hamas with several drone and missile attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea and Israel
  • Yet its unlikely the militia will be a severe threat to Israel
Update : 07 Dec 2023, 11:43 PM

Houthi rebels in Yemen continue to target commercial ships in the Red Sea and fire ballistic missiles and drones toward Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, in retaliation for the war in Gaza.

On Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed that more projectiles were intercepted over the Red Sea without causing damage or casualties. Earlier this week, the US military said three commercial vessels had been attacked in the Red Sea and that an American destroyer had shot down multiple drones launched from Houthi-held areas in Yemen.

The Red Sea is a crucial passage, with around 10% of global trade passing through it annually.

The Houthi group said in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, that it would "carry out their military operations against the Israeli enemy, as well as implementing the decision to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Arab and Red Seas in support of the oppressed Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, Houthi rebels remain in control of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, a vessel that the militia said it hijacked on November 19. Maritime security company Ambrey had confirmed last month that the vessel's group owner is listed as Ray Car Carriers, whose parent company belongs to Abraham Ungar, an Israeli businessman.

However, according to Israeli officials and the shipping company, none of the 25 crew members on board were Israeli, and the vessel was sailing under the Japanese flag.

Japan's Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa had said previously that Tokyo was "communicating with Israel, and in addition to directly approaching the Houthis, we are also urging Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other countries concerned to strongly urge the Houthis for the early release of the vessel and crew members."

An expected escalation

For Fabian Hinz, who specializes in defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an attack on a ship in the Red Sea had been expected.

"There were fears that the Houthis might start launching kinetic attacks (active warfare) on civilian ships in order to actually sink them. However, they decided to escalate on a lower level," he told DW.

Hinz said the attacks were "very reminiscent" of Iranian actions in the Persian Gulf, where it repeatedly hijacked civilian ships somehow connected to its adversaries through ownership structures. "These hijacked ships and the crews were then used as political leverage."

However, Hinz doubts that Iran's role in the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader was comprehensive. "The Iranians have the Behshad in the area, a cargo ship converted into an operational base, which is probably also used for espionage purposes, and it is quite possible that they have helped a little with intelligence."

Despite this escalation by the Houthi rebels, Yemen is not fit to add the Red Sea as a new front. A civil war that began in 2014 when the Houthis ousted the Yemeni government and took control of the capital Sanaa has left the country with a fractured political landscape and damaged infrastructure. The conflict, which is widely regarded as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has also led to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.

How Houthi attacks on Israel help Hamas

"The regional signal is to drive insecurity and instability across the region and to set the Houthis apart from Arab governments that have normalized ties with Israel, like the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, or have attempted to do so, like Saudi Arabia," Matthew Hedges, a Yemen and Middle East expert in London, told DW.

The UAE and Bahrain normalized their ties with Israel in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords brokered by the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia also appeared to be on a similar course, but talks have stalled as a consequence of the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

"The Houthis put pressure on other communities across the region to align the pan-Islamic narrative whereby the Houthis are responding to Israeli attacks against all Muslims, and by doing so, the Houthis lead the call that all Muslims need to attack Israel," he added.

Farea Al-Muslimi, a Middle East and North Africa research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, echoed this view. "The Red Sea is the most recent but clearly the most crucial front line of the 'axis of resistance' against Israel and the United States in the Middle East," he told DW.

"No one should underestimate the Houthi recklessness, and unfortunately, more of these attacks are likely to come over the next weeks, including attacks on non-Israeli ships, which will be targeted by the Houthis as soon as they can," he added.

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