Israel beefs up defenses around Eilat following Houthi attacks

IDF warns that it could respond to repeated launches by Yemeni militia, as Iran says allied groups could increase attacks on Israel if war against Hamas not halted

An Israeli Navy missile boat is seen off the coast of Eilat, October 31, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
An Israeli Navy missile boat is seen off the coast of Eilat, October 31, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel has bolstered air defenses in the Red Sea area with Navy missile boats following several missile and drone attacks by Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, the military said Wednesday.

The vessels were deployed on Tuesday “in accordance with the assessment of the situation, and as part of the increased defense efforts in the area,” after a missile and two drones were launched from Yemen at Israel.

An additional target was intercepted early on Wednesday morning near Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city on the Red Sea.

The resort city, normally home to some 50,000 people, has swelled with tens of thousands of evacuees from battered Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip and towns near the Lebanese border which have been bombarded in recent weeks.

The IDF confirmed that it has several layers of air defenses in the area to protect against Houthi attacks. The US military is also deployed in the Red Sea region and intercepted a number of Houthi missiles and drones heading for Israel two weeks ago.

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari threatened that Israel could respond to the attacks, which Jerusalem sees as directed by Iran.

A trail of smoke, apparently from an Israeli air defense missile, is seen over the Eilat area in southern Israel, October 31, 2023. (Courtesy)

“We are at a very high level of defense readiness,” he said in a press briefing on Wednesday morning. “We have added more Navy vessels that can provide significant protection in the maritime arena, and which also know how to deliver offensive capabilities.”

“We know how to attack where and when we decide, against any security interest of the State of Israel, wherever it is required,” Hagari added.

On Tuesday, the Arrow air defense system was used to intercept a surface-to-surface missile launched by the Houthis, marking the first operational use of the long-range system during the current war with Hamas.

Yemen’s Houthi militia, which operates under the slogan “Death to America and death to Israel; curse the Jews and victory to Islam,” has claimed responsibility for at least three separate attacks since Hamas’s October 7 assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were brutally murdered.

The rebel group’s spokesperson Yahya Saria said on Tuesday that the attacks were prompted by “the demands of the Yemeni people.”

The group published a video Wednesday, depicting missiles and drones being launched toward Israel from inside Yemen. However, none of them reached their target, and photos posted to social media show the wreckage of one such cruise missile in southern Jordan, near the Saudi border.

Last week, two drones launched from Yemen hit cities in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, including one which injured six people near a hospital in the border town of Taba.

Other projectiles launched from Yemen toward Israel have been downed by the US or Saudi Arabia.

Israel accuses the Houthis of acting under Iranian orders, along with other groups in the region trying to sidetrack Israel’s military effort against Hamas in Gaza.

“They try to challenge us, divert our attention away from the war in Gaza. We remain focused on the fighting in Gaza,” Hagari said on Tuesday night.

Houthi soldiers stand guard on a missile carrier during a military parade on September 21, 2023. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

The attacks have come amid an uptick in rocket and missile attacks on northern Israel from Lebanon, largely fired by Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, and other groups linked to Tehran have taken responsibility for attacks on bases housing US troops in Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s mission to the UN warned that allied groups could continue to expand their operations in a statement delivered to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

“The warnings from Iran regarding the initial days of the Gaza civilian casualties highlighted a concern: if these atrocities were not halted, they could incite public outrage and exhaust the patience of the resistance movements,” the Iranian mission said.

“These concerns can be averted and the responsibility lies squarely in the hands of the American administration to halt the transgressions perpetuated by the Israeli regime.”

Iran has long denied arming the Houthis, even as evidence has mounted of it transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weaponry to the Yemeni militia using sea routes. Independent experts, Western nations and United Nations experts have traced components seized aboard other detained vessels back to Iran.

Iranian surface-to-air missiles seized by the US Navy from a shipment heading to Houthi rebels in Yemen, February 9, 2020. (US Department of Justice)

Despite the repeated attempts to hit Israel’s southernmost areas, the IDF says Eilat remains safe, though the drone attack Tuesday briefly sent residents scrambling for shelter. Following the interception on Wednesday morning, the army said that “no penetration of Israeli territory was identified.”

In the weeks since Hamas stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of thousands of rockets, an estimated 65,000 evacuees have been relocated to Eilat, where the threat of Hamas rockets is minimal.

AP contributed to this report.

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