Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed Sunday that they had hijacked an Israeli cargo ship traveling through the Red Sea, as the Jewish state blamed Iran for the incident and denied that the vessel was Israeli.
The Tehran-backed Houthis released a statement claiming responsibility, with Houthi spokesperson Yahya Saree saying in a statement that the rebels “carried out a military operation in the Red Sea, the results of which were the seizure of an Israeli ship and taking it to the Yemeni coast.”
He said the Houthis were “dealing with the ship’s crew in accordance with the teachings and values of our Islamic religion,” reiterating repeated threats to target any Israel-linked vessels in the Red Sea due to Israel’s “brutal aggression” against Hamas terrorists in Gaza.
Two US defense officials confirmed that Houthi rebels seized the ship, a vehicle carrier named the Galaxy Leader, in the Red Sea. The rebels descended on the cargo ship by rappelling down from a helicopter, the officials said, confirming details first reported by NBC News. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
A statement from the Israel Defense Forces decried the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader as a “very serious incident on the global scale.”
The Bahaman-flagged vessel is registered under a British company, which is partially owned by Israeli tycoon Abraham Ungar, who goes by Rami. The vessel was leased out to a Japanese company at the time of the hijacking.
According to the military, the ship was sailing from Turkey to India with an international civilian crew, without any Israelis aboard.
“This is not an Israeli ship,” the IDF asserted, while directly blaming the Houthis for the hijacking.
A UN ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm, Ray Shipping Ltd, which was founded by Ungar. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Sunday, and officials at the company did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.
Ungar told The Associated Press he was aware of the incident but couldn’t comment as he awaited details.
El Arabiya: "Yemen'deki Husiler, Kızıldeniz'de 22 İsrailli mürettebatın bulunduğu bir İsrail gemisini ele geçirdi."
▪️İsrailli hesaplar, ele geçirilen geminin Galaxy Leader isimli gemi olduğunu aktarıyor. pic.twitter.com/8eKOSMrbFN
— EHA MEDYA (@eha_medya) November 19, 2023
The complex world of international shipping often involves a series of management companies, flags and owners stretching across the globe in a single vessel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office also blamed Iran for Sunday’s incident.
The Prime Minister’s Office identified the vessel as a British ship being operated by a Japanese company that was “hijacked on an Iranian whim by the Houthi militia in Yemen.” It added there were 25 crew members on board from Ukraine, Bulgaria, the Philippines and Mexico, but no Israelis on the ship.
“This is another act of Iranian terrorism which expresses a leap forward in Iranian aggression against citizens of the free world, and creates international implications when it comes to the security of global shipping routes,” the statement said.
Satellite tracking data from MarineTraffic.com analyzed by the AP showed the Galaxy Leader traveling in the Red Sea southwest of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, more than a day ago. The vessel had been in Korfez, Turkey, and was on its way to Pipavav, India, at the time of the reported seizure.
It had its Automatic Identification System tracker, or AIS, switched off, the data showed. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS active for safety reasons, but crews will turn them off if it appears they might be targeted or to smuggle contraband, which there was no immediate evidence to suggest was the case with the Galaxy Leader.
The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Persian Gulf and the wider region, put the hijacking as having occurred some 150 kilometers (90 miles) off the coast of Yemen’s port city of Hodeida, near the coast of Eritrea.
The hijacking came after the Houthis have regularly pledged to target any ships “carrying the flag of the Zionist entity,” owned by an Israeli company or operated by one.
The Houthis have fired several ballistic missiles and drones at Eilat since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war last month, all of which were intercepted or missed their targets. One of the surface-to-surface missiles was shot down by Israel’s most advanced air defense system, the Arrow 3, marking the system’s first successful interception of a missile.
The Houthis have said they are acting as part of the “axis of resistance” against Israel, which includes Iran-backed terror groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Yemeni rebel group’s slogan is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory for Islam.”
The leader of the Houthis, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, has reiterated that the launching of missiles and drones toward southern Israel “will continue.”
The recent attacks are the first entry into a foreign war for the Houthis, who control much of impoverished Yemen and have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition since 2015.
Emanuel Fabian and agencies contributed to this report.