Israeli ships are a “legitimate target,” Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels warned on Monday after their seizure of an Israel-linked cargo vessel opened a new dimension in Israel’s war against Hamas.
Sunday’s capture of the Galaxy Leader and its 25 international crew members came days after the Iran-backed Houthis threatened to target Israeli shipping over the Israel-Hamas war.
The Houthis have fired several ballistic missiles and drones at Eilat since the beginning of the 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 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.
“Israeli ships are legitimate targets for us anywhere… and we will not hesitate to take action,” Major General Ali Al-Moshki, a Houthi military official, told the group’s Al-Massirah TV station.
Analysts also said Houthi threats to shipping around the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a choke point at the foot of the commercially vital Red Sea, were likely to rise.
The Bahamas-flagged, British-owned Galaxy Leader is operated by a Japanese firm but has links to Israeli businessman Abraham “Rami” Ungar.
The Houthis said the capture was in retaliation for Israel’s war against Hamas, which was sparked by Hamas’s shock October 7 assault on southern Israeli communities, when 3,000 terrorists broke through the border and murdered some 1,200 people, a majority of them civilians, amid brutal atrocities, and kidnapped some 240 people to Gaza.
In response, Israel vowed to eliminate the terror group in a military campaign that the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed 13,000 people in Gaza, including thousands of children. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and do not distinguish between terror operatives and noncombatants.
Sunday’s ship seizure “is only the beginning,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said Sunday in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, pledging further maritime attacks until Israel halts its Gaza campaign.
Maritime security company Ambrey said it had learned that the rebels boarded the ship by rappelling or sliding down a rope from a helicopter — the method used by Iran during previous vessel seizures in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Houthis later published a video of the assault on the ship.
החות'ים בתימן מציגים: כך השתלטנו אתמול בים סוף על "הספינה הישראלית" pic.twitter.com/aCiz4V6Bvp
— roi kais • روعي كايس • רועי קייס (@kaisos1987) November 20, 2023
The vessel headed from Turkey to India was re-routed to the Yemeni port of Salif port in Hodeida province, according to Ambrey and a Yemeni maritime source.
Ambrey said the owner of the Galaxy Leader, which transports cars and other vehicles, is listed as Britain’s Ray Car Carriers whose parent company belongs to Ungar, the Israeli businessman.
Israel’s military said the seizure was a “very grave incident of global consequence,” while a US military official called it “a flagrant violation of international law.”
The crew was reportedly “under investigation” by the Houthis, Ambrey said. They include Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Filipinos, Mexicans, and a Romanian, according to Israeli and Romanian officials.
Nippon Yusen, also known as NYK Line of Japan, said it had set up a task team to gather information and ensure the crew’s safety.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said Tokyo was “directly approaching the Houthis” as well as communicating with Israel.
“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,” she said.
‘Threat likely to rise’
The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized the capture as an “Iranian attack against an international vessel,” an accusation dismissed by Iran.
“We have repeatedly announced that the resistance groups in the region represent their countries and make decisions and act based on the interests of their countries,” said Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani.
Yemen’s coastline overlooks the Bab al-Mandab Strait — a narrow pass between Yemen and Djibouti at the foot of the Red Sea — which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and carries about a fifth of global oil consumption.
“The threat of disruption to shipping in the wider region is likely to rise,” Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft told AFP.
“If security concerns compel shipping companies to avoid the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the result will be significantly higher costs due to the lack of alternative routes.”
Mohammed al-Basha, senior Middle East analyst for the US-based Navanti Group, said the failure of Houthi missile and drone launches to hit targets inside Israel “might have influenced the decision to refocus on the Red Sea arena.”