A direct threat to international trade and maritime security. This is how the US Central Command (CENTCOM) described Sunday’s attacks on a merchant ship in the Red Sea. This time too, the Yemeni Houthis, supported by Iran, were behind them.
The Houthis announced on Sunday that they had attacked two “Israeli” ships. However, it later turned out that they were not actually Israeli vessels, and three commercial vessels came under fire. Only in one case was an Israeli businessman among several owners of one ship. The ship itself sailed under the Panamanian flag, according to the Times of Israel website.
“We renew our warning to all Israeli ships (or those connected to Israel) that they will become legitimate targets,” Houthi army spokesman Yahya Sari said. The spokesman also threatened to expand military operations against Israel if the Jewish government does not immediately stop bombing the Gaza Strip.
The attacks took place in the Bab al-Mandab strait, which connects Djibouti and Yemen and thus ensures the maritime connection between Asia and Africa, but above all the connection to Europe. The ships that pass through it each year represent 10 percent of the world’s maritime trade. They transport, among other things, six million barrels of oil every day.
If Israel used other routes, whether by land or air, it would mean higher costs for Israel, and foreign trade would thus suffer significantly.
The war in Yemen
The conflict between Houthi rebels and the central government began in September 2014when the Houthis captured the city of Sana’a.
In March 2015, it intervened in the civil war Saudi Arabia, which invaded the country together with eight other Arab states. The USA and other Western countries also supported the invasion logistically, but later – after accusing both warring parties of war crimes – they ended their engagement.
The Shiite Houthis have support for Iran impoverished Yemen thus became the scene of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Over 370 thousand people died in the war, in the years 2015-2018 on 85 thousand children died of hunger (data from the Save the Children organization).
Turnover brought up to Saudi-Iranian reconciliation. In March 2023, the two sides agreed on a large-scale exchange of prisoners, and in September, a Houthi delegation came to Riyadh for negotiations.
Now, according to the UN, the talks are heading in the right direction and the country is in power truce.
Sunday saw the biggest escalation in the Red Sea since the start of Israel’s war with Hamas: “Today there were four attacks against three merchant vessels operating in international waters in the southern Red Sea,” CENTCOM said in a statement on Sunday.
The attack also had to be repelled by the American destroyer USS Carney, which shot down three drones heading towards it.
While one of the ships suffered only minimal damage after the impact of the rocket, the other – which the Huthi attacked most likely by mistake – was heavily damaged by the rocket and is in danger of sinking. Thousands of cargo containers would also go to the bottom. There were no Israelis on the ship.
According to the British and American authorities, the attacks took place from the territory of Yemen, specifically from the Houthi-controlled city of Sana’a.
As reported by the Ynetnews server, the Houthi attacks are already having a concrete commercial impact. The major shipping company Zim already announced last week that it will divert ships from the dangerous route in the Red Sea. According to server sources, this decision will lead to a delay in the delivery of goods of 30 to 50 days depending on the contents of the containers and the destination.
Although Israel has already warned the Houthis against further attacks, it has so far not expressed itself much due to the war in Gaza. Al-Arabiya TV only reported on the explosion in the Yemeni city of Sana’a, which Israel was supposed to be behind. The target was a warehouse of missiles and drones used by the Houthis.
The United States is then “considering appropriate responses,” according to a CENTCOM statement. At the same time, they explicitly mention Iran, which arms and finances the Houthis: “We have every reason to believe that these attacks, although launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran.”
Analysts contacted by the AP agency believe that the current escalation by the Houthis is related to their declining popularity. In Yemen’s civil war, where government troops and Iran-backed Houthi rebels are fighting each other, there is a truce and politicians are talking about a good chance of calming down the region. But such a scenario obviously does not suit all actors.