‘A source of pride’: Yemen’s Houthi rebels open seized cargo ship to sightseers

Male-only visitors pay to go onboard Galaxy Leader, traveling from across the country to marvel at ‘Israeli ship’ anchored off Hodeida coast

A Yemeni boy sells models of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi rebels in November 2023, in Sanaa on January 18, 2024. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)
A Yemeni boy sells models of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi rebels in November 2023, in Sanaa on January 18, 2024. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

HODEIDA, Yemen — More than two months after Yemen’s Houthis captured the Galaxy Leader cargo ship and detained its crew, the Iran-backed rebels have turned the vessel into a domestic “tourist attraction.”

For about a dollar per trip, male-only groups of visitors can board wooden boats five times a week to the hijacked car carrier, which the Houthis hail as a trophy in their fight in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Since shortly after the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza broke out with the terror group’s October 7 onslaught, the Houthis have launched a spate of missile and drone attacks on passing commercial ships which they say — sometimes falsely — are linked to Israel.

A US-led naval coalition has responded by patrolling the Red Sea, and US and British forces have struck military sites of the Houthis, now designated a terror group by Washington, to keep open the vital shipping lane.

This has done little to dampen the mood on the sightseeing trips to the seized vessel, which is now decorated with Yemeni and Palestinian flags and banners displaying anti-American and anti-Israel slogans.

On a recent visit, Zubair al-Haidari, from the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa, said he had traveled for five hours to see the “Israeli ship” anchored off Hodeida on the Red Sea coast.

It is our “pride and honor… that our armed forces have accomplished this wonderful work in supporting our oppressed brothers in Palestine and in Gaza,” he told AFP.

He was among some 10 visitors taking pictures with their mobile phones as they chewed khat, a plant that generates a mild high and is widely consumed in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country.

Onboard the ship, some visitors performed a traditional dance featuring the daggers that many Yemenis carry tucked into their belts, accompanied by chants glorifying the Houthis.

On the deck of the Galaxy Leader, none of the visitors interviewed by AFP said they had seen the 25 crew members, who are Bulgarian, Filipino, Ukrainian and Mexican and whose fate remains unknown.

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows Houthi vessels escorting the captured cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, November 19, 2023. (Houthi Media Center via AP)

‘Source of pride’

The Galaxy Leader is owned by a British company, which is in turn owned by an Israeli businessman.

It had been chartered by a Japanese company when it was captured on November 19 by the Houthis, who said they were acting in “solidarity” with people in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s military campaign was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 massacre, in which about 1,200 people were murdered in Israel and 253 were kidnapped amid horrific acts of brutality directed at civilians.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says the military offensive has killed at least 26,257 people, in unverified figures that don’t differentiate between civilians and terrorists and includes victims of misfired Palestinian rockets. Israel says it has killed over 9,000 terror group members, as well as some 1,000 in Israel in the aftermath of the mass invasion.

A Yemeni man sells models of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by Houthi rebels in November 2023, in Sanaa on January 18, 2024. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

Amid the Gaza war, the Houthis have launched numerous attacks against shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, threatening an essential global trade route.

Hizam al-Assad, of the Houthi political bureau, referred to the Galaxy Leader as a “tourist attraction” and said the visitors were “proof that the Yemeni people… are impatient to meet the enemy and confront it.”

A visitor, Hamada al-Baydani, said he had traveled 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Al-Bayda, to see the seized ship, which he labeled “a source of pride for Yemenis.”

Several days after detaining the vessel, the Houthis published a video showing a military general welcoming a group they said was the crew, but the jihadists have not provided any information on their fate since.

After an hour onboard under the scorching sun, the visitors made their way back home, chanting “God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel.”

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