Shipping disruptions to continue as Houthis vow to target Israel-bound ships

On May 3, Yahya Saree, the military spokesperson for Iran-backed and Yemen-based Houthis, declared in a televised speech that the group planned to target ships heading to Israeli ports in any area within their range. The Houthis have been targeting ships in the Red Sea region since November last year in what they termed as a show of solidarity with Hamas, a terrorist group, combating Israel in Gaza. The war started after Hamas-led militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages.

“We will target any ships heading to Israeli ports in the Mediterranean Sea in any area we are able to reach,” Saree warned, reiterating that the decision will be carried out “immediately, and from the moment this statement is announced”.

Subsequently, on May 9, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the militant group, revealed that they would attack ships of any company linked to supplying or transporting goods to Israel, irrespective of their destination. He added that the attacks marked a fourth phase of conflict intensification following “the Israeli aggression on Rafah” in the southern Gaza Strip.

“From now on, we are also thinking about the fifth stage and the sixth stage, and we have very important, sensitive and influential choices on the enemies,” al-Houthi cautioned, stating that the group has “no red lines” that would impede its activities. 

The Houthis also declared that they had targeted 112 Israeli, U.S., and UK ships thus far since November 2023. In a televised speech, broadcasted by the Al-Masirah channel, the Houthis threatened Israel with “effective strategic options” following Tel Aviv’s incursion into Rafah in southern Gaza.

“Operations on the Yemen front continue to target U.S., Israeli, and UK ships associated with the Israeli enemy,” said al-Houthi. “The ships targeted by our forces reached 112 ships, and the operations during this week were carried out with 10 ballistic and cruise missiles and drones.”

In the latest report, the Houthis claimed to have attacked three Israeli ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, with direct strikes. 

On May 13, U.S. forces successfully destroyed one inbound anti-ship ballistic missile fired by the Houthis over the Red Sea. Besides, U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) forces destroyed one unmanned aircraft system (UAS) launched by the Houthis from Yemen over the Red Sea. The same day, the U.S. urged Iran to cease its transfer of an “unprecedented” amount of weaponry to the Houthi rebels, empowering their militants to stage “reckless attacks” on ships in the Red Sea and elsewhere.

U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood told the UN Security Council that if progress is to be made in ending the civil war in Yemen, the UN should collectively “call Iran out for its destabilizing role and insist that it cannot hide behind the Houthis.” He said there was comprehensive proof that Iran was supplying advanced weapons, including ballistic and cruise missiles, to the Houthis, thus breaching UN sanctions.

“To underscore the council’s concern regarding the ongoing violations of the arms embargo, we must do more to strengthen enforcement and deter sanctions violators,” Wood asserted. 

The Houthi militants claimed to have a new, hypersonic missile in their arsenal, potentially escalating the group’s assaults on shipping in the Red Sea and neighboring waters.  

In early May, the Italian Navy’s frigate Fasan, guarding a merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden, detected a Houthi-launched drone and shot it down. On May 4, the French Navy also shot down a drone while protecting merchant ships in the Red Sea.

With Houthi not backing down from their attacks, shipping companies, including Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd, reported that they were increasing their diversions. On March 6, the Houthis claimed the lives of three seafarers, marking the first fatalities of the terror campaign, when a missile hit a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden. Rubymar, the first ship to be sunk, was hit by missiles on February 18.

Since November 2023, the Houthis have conducted repeated drone and missile strikes on ships in the vital shipping conduits of the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden to display their support for Hamas against the Israelis in the Gaza war. 

Consequently, ships have had to re-route to longer and more costly voyages around southern Africa.

Officials from the U.S. and the UK have bombarded over a dozen Houthi sites in Yemen, including attacks on underground weapons and missile storage facilities, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter. However, the deterrence has not stopped the Houthis from attacking ships. In the meantime, it is to be expected there will be continued supply chain delays and disruptions amid skyrocketing freight rates that will push up the cost of goods.

Photo credit: iStock/ vchal

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