- Tel Aviv said it was a British-owned and Japanese-operated vessel, with no Israelis onboard
- “This is another Iranian act of terrorism,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office
- Experts say Houthi rebels could have acted with or without Iranian involvement
Yemen’s Houthi rebels said they hijacked an Israeli-linked ship that was on its way to India and took 25 of its crew members hostage.
Tel Aviv said there were no Israelis onboard and called the incident an act of “Iranian act of terrorism.”
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have been rallying behind the Palestinians in the ongoing war from their seat of power in Yemen’s Sana’a, claimed they seized the cargo ship called Galaxy Leader by lowering fighters using a helicopter.
The ship’s ownership is associated with Ray Car Carriers, the parent company that belongs to Israeli billionaire and international shipping mogul Abraham “Rami” Ungar.
The Israel Defense Forces said the ship was on its way to India from Turkey when it was hijacked in the southern Red Sea near Yemen.
“The Yemeni Naval Forces managed to capture an Israeli ship in the depths of the Red Sea taking it to the Yemeni coast,” Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree wrote on Twitter.
The Yemeni armed forces urged all countries with citizens working in the Red Sea to avoid work or activity involving Israeli ships or ships owned by Israelis, Saree said.
“Yemeni armed forces confirm that they will continue to carry out military operations against the Israeli enemy until the aggression against Gaza stops and the heinous acts against our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank stop,” his statement said.
“If the international community is concerned about regional security and stability, rather than expanding the conflict, it should put an end to Israel’s aggression against Gaza,” Saree added.
Israeli officials asserted that none of the crew members were Israeli, and described the ship as a British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo vessel.
The ship had no cargo when it was seized, Japanese operator NYK Line said.
NYK said the crew members are from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, the Philippines and Mexico.
They are being treated “in accordance with the principle and values of our Islamic religion,” Saree said about the crew.
The Israeli military called the hijacking a “very grave incident of global consequence.”
“This is another Iranian act of terrorism that represents an escalation in Iran’s belligerence against the citizens of the free world, with concomitant international ramifications vis-a-vis the security of global shipping routes,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
K.P. Fabian, former Indian ambassador to Iran and Qatar, believes there could be a “regional conflagration” if Iran is consequently struck by Israel.
“Iran may or may not have asked the Houthis to capture the ship. Netanyahu has the habit of blaming Iran whether it has been responsible for a particular act or not,” Fabian told International Business Times. “For Israel, it is a serious matter if the Red Sea is not safe for Israeli ships or ships related to Israel in any way. It is through the Red Sea that from the port of Eilat that Israel sends a good part of its sea-borne trade.”
“If Iran is struck by Israel, that can cause a regional conflagration,” he added.
The Houthis movement, which began in the late 1990s as a religious group to revive the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, has a history of rising up against the Sunni government. When Houthi insurgents took control of Yemeni capital Sana’a in 2014, it marked the onset of civil war in the country.
Today, the Houthi rebels control northern Yemen and its Red Sea coast. Their slogan is “Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam.” Although the Houthis have called for the destruction of Israel in the past, they never acted upon them until the country began its bombardment of Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
The Houthis are also part of what Iran calls the Axis of Resistance, which also includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Syria, Iraqi Shia militia groups, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. While the groups exercise varying degrees of closeness with Iran, they are united by their common resistance toward Western powers and share an anti-American, anti-Israel worldview.
On Oct. 31, Saree said in a televised statement that the group had launched a “large number” of ballistic missiles and drones toward Israel, and would launch more of such attacks “to help the Palestinians to victory.”
“The action by the Houthi movement seems aimed at capitalizing on the prevailing anti-Israel mood on the Arab streets to enhance their legitimacy, especially when state actors are not able to stop the ongoing war,” Md. Muddassir Quamar, author and associate professor at Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said about the hijacking of the India-bound ship.
“The Houthis have been trying to widen the war in Yemen especially targeting the Red Sea SLoC, and the current action is another effort in that direction. So, it serves two purposes; one, the Houthis will gain wider public sympathy, and two, it will disturb the global trade flow and escalate cost, which means the pressure on Israel to limit the war will increase,” he added.
While certain groups of the Axis of Resistance sometimes serve as Iran’s proxy during regional wars, Quamar pointed out that the Houthis could have acted independently in the hijacking as well.
“Indeed, the Houthis have worked in tandem with Iran, and might even be considered its proxy, but they also act independently, and thus far there are no indications of a direct/indirect Iranian involvement,” he said.
“Rhetorics apart, it is unlikely that any of the so called ‘axis of resistance’ are interested in getting involved in the war,” he added. “An example is Hezbollah, which has only taken symbolic actions. I would see the Houthi action too as a symbolic one. But the impact for the global business community, and for developing economies of Asia could be serious, especially as the financial and security cost of trade increases. Despite having developed close relations with Israel, Houthis have mostly remained focused in Yemen and its surrounding.”