Yemen’s Houthis target Israel-linked ships in Red Sea. Here’s what to know

The Houthis seem to have made a strategic shift towards maritime operations to ramp up pressure on the US and Israel.

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A view of a ship seized by Yemen's Houthis off the Red Sea coast last month, which is still held by the Iran-backed group [Houthi Media Office/Handout via Reuters]

The Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen has launched a series of new attacks against Israel-linked vessels in the Red Sea that drew a response from a United States warship deployed in one of the world’s busiest maritime routes.

The powerful group, which controls Yemeni capital Sanaa and commands an expanding military, has promised more attacks will be launched if Israel and the US refuse to put a stop to the war on Gaza, which has killed more than 15,500 Palestinians since October 7.

Let’s take a look at the latest attacks, why the Bab al-Mandeb Strait where they took place is important, and how the situation could unfold as the Israeli war machine shows no signs of stopping.

What’s the latest?

The US military said late on Sunday that three commercial vessels came under attack in the strait – a narrow sea passage that separates the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa. The Houthis claimed strikes on only two ships.

Several projectiles are believed to have been fired at the Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier Unity Explorer, with at least one hitting its target and inflicting damage.

The USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, said it shot down a drone that appeared to be headed its way, and also downed two more drones while responding to distress calls by the ships.

The other two commercial ships, the Panamanian-flagged bulk carriers Number 9 and Sophie II, were also struck by missiles. US Central Command did not report any casualties.

It said Washington has “every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran”.

Tehran has not commented officially on the latest attack, but it previously maintained that while it supports a “resistance axis” consisting of groups in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, its members operate autonomously. Iran-backed Hezbollah group has been engaged in a deadly border fight with Israeli forces in solidarity with Palestinians. Dozens of Hezbollah fighters have been killed, including journalists, in Israeli shelling, raising fears of a regional escalation.

Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Saree accepted responsibility for two of the attacks but did not mention claims of its drones being engaged by a US warship.

“The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will become a legitimate target” if Israel does not stop its attacks on the Gaza Strip, he said.

Why is Bab al-Mandeb important?

The Bab al-Mandeb is a 25km (15 miles) strait that connects the Gulf of Aden south of Yemen to the Red Sea, which stretches to southern Israel and is a significant shipping lane.

The Houthis are effectively setting their sights on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, where goods and oil are transported in large quantities.

By focusing on Bab al-Mandeb – and launching earlier attacks in the Red Sea and southern Israel – the Houthis appear to be trying to impose hefty financial costs on Israel in addition to undermining its security if it chooses to prolong the war.

Israel also extensively uses the route for trade and imports much of its food supply from there. The cost of insuring Israeli ships or those carrying goods to Israel will likely keep rising if the attacks are ongoing.

It is possible that some ships that see themselves exposed to risk due to links with Israel may opt to avoid Bab al-Mandeb and the Red Sea altogether, with companies instead resorting to longer routes around Africa or more expensive air transport.

Eilat, a southern Israeli port and resort town on the Red Sea, is a tourist destination that will take a financial hit if its security is compromised for longer periods.

Why not target Israel directly?

The Iran-backed Houthis publicly announced their participation in the war in late October by launching a considerable number of missiles and drones towards southern Israel.

Most of them are believed to have been intercepted – either by Israeli defence systems or the US warships – or have fallen short of their target. So, they failed to inflict considerable damage on Eilat or other parts of Israel.

That is largely owing to the fact that the projectiles were being fired from about 2,000 km (1,240 miles) away. Despite considerably upgrading their projectiles in recent years, it appears the Houthis decided that focusing on firing directly at Israel would offer limited gains.

They appear to have adopted a strategic shift since last month, instead focusing on vessels much closer to their shores that remain vulnerable and can be targeted directly within a much more comfortable range.

They still hold a ship they seized last month, and have launched several other maritime attacks prior to the attacks on Sunday – which marked their largest maritime strikes yet. They also claimed to have downed a US drone last month.

Will Israel and the US attack Yemen?

As multiple ships were targeted simultaneously by the Houthis on Sunday for the first time, the US military said it would “consider all appropriate responses”, without going into detail.

“These attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security,” it said in a statement. “They have jeopardised the lives of international crews representing multiple countries around the world.”

Israel and the US have so far chosen not to directly attack Yemeni soil, and that will likely remain the case.

Yemen has just emerged from a war that lasted more than seven years and failed to remove the Houthis, who fought a coalition led by Saudi Arabia that was supported by Washington before President Joe Biden pulled the US out and reversed a “terrorist” designation for the group.

As Israel is also fighting Hezbollah on its border and Iran-backed forces continue to trade fire with the US in Syria and Iraq, Israel and its Western allies seem reluctant to further expand the scope of the war.

Source: Al Jazeera