The Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group Houthis have seized a vessel in the Red Sea’s shipping route and took the ship’s 25 crew members hostage. It’s just the latest sign that the spillover from Gaza may arrive first from the south.
Since the war against Hamas exploded last month in Gaza, international diplomats and war-game analysts have been looking at the map of the Middle East to gauge if and where the conflict might escalate.
Though much of the attention has been on Lebanon-based Hezbollah across Israel’s northern border, it's best right now to look south instead.
The Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, known as Houthis, have escalated their attacks on Israel and its interests, fueling already mounting concerns that the war in Gaza could spill over into a regional conflict.
On Sunday, the rebels said they seized a cargo vessel in the Red Sea crucial shipping route, south of Israel, and took the ship’s 25 crew members hostage.
The escalation by the Houthis and other Iranian-backed militias in the region, including missile attacks by Hezbollah on northern Israel have increased concerns the war between Israel and the Palestinian militants in Gaza could spread across the region, with even more explosive global consequences.
Analysts say the latest Houthi move aims to add more pressure on Israel and its closest ally, the U.S., as the war in Gaza continues unabated. They also say that as the situation becomes increasingly dire in the Palestinian enclave, Iran may be left with no choice but to escalate tensions through its proxies in the region.
Sunday’s seizure came hours after the group threatened to target Israel-linked vessels off Yemen, as part of their response to the war in Gaza. The rebels have also launched barrages of missiles and explosive-laden drones on Israel since the war began on Oct. 7.
The vessel targeted Sunday was the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader, a vehicle carrier, operated by NYK Line, a Japanese firm. The vessel has been affiliated with Abraham “Rami” Ungar, who is known as one of the richest men in Israel.
“All ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets,” Yahia Sarei, a military spokesman for the Houthis, said in a video statement , announcing the seizure. He called on all countries to pull its citizens out of Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea.
This proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs
Mohammed Abdul-Salam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator and spokesman, also said the vessel’s seizure came “in solidarity with our Palestinian people,” and the rebels would continue targeting Israeli-linked vessels.
“The detention of the Israeli ship is a practical step that proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs,” he said on X, formerly known as Twitter, “This is the beginning.”
“Stopping the Israeli aggression on Gaza” is the only way to prevent the regionalization of the war, he added.
NYK Line, the Japanese operator, said in a statement the vessel’s crew-members are from the Philippines, Bulgaria , Romania, Ukraine, and Mexico. It said there were no Israelis on board, and no cargo on the vessel at the time of hijacking.
Nov. 1, 2023 : Israel sent missile boats to the Red Sea after Houthi forces in Yemen fired missiles and drones toward Israel's resort city of Eilat.
Yemeni civil war
Though Israeli officials insisted the ship was British-owned and Japanese-operated, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ’s office condemned the seizure as an “Iranian act of terror.” The Israeli military called the hijacking a “very grave incident of global consequence.”
The Houthis, a Shiite Zaydi group that comes from northern Yemen, seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government to flee southward, then to exile in Saudi Arabia.
The takeover triggered a civil war in Yemen and Saudi Arabia led a military coalition in March 2015 that has fought on the side of the government. The conflict had largely turned into a stalemate, seen by most as a clear proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran , the main foreign backer of the Houthis.
The Houthis previously attacked vessels off Yemen as part of their year-long war against the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates.Citing analysts, the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm said the Houthi move aimed at “distracting Israel capabilities to ease pressure on the Palestinians.”
The Cairo-based daily quoted Tarik Fahmy, a political scientist, as saying: “a conflict spillover is highly likely,” and that Iran has been activating its proxies in the region “to add more pressure on Israel.”
Still the pressure on Israel may also be a sign that Iran “doesn’t want a direct confrontation” with the United States.
Bashir Abdel-Fattah, an expert with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies think-tank, argued that the Houthis’ front “is very dangerous” as it threatens Israel’s national security and its interests in Bab al-Mandab strait, the strategic southern entrance to the Red Sea. He pointed to the Houthis’ military arsenal, ballistic missiles, smaller cruise missiles and suicide drones, which are capable of reaching Isreal.
Iran is the root of hostility and aggression.
“This will impact Israel’s maritime and shipping activities, further pressuring Israel’s economy," he said.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the most powerful Iranian-backed militia in the region, meanwhile ramped up its missile attacks and shelling of northern Israel.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday warned that Iran was intensifying its attacks against, saying that Hezbollah had fired 1,000 munitions at Israel since October 7 , according to The Times of Israel newspaper .
“Iran is the root of hostility and aggression against the State of Israel. The war is multifront, even though its intensity is focused on Gaza,” Gallant was quoted as saying.