The ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict has spilled over into the Red Sea, with Yemen's Houthi rebels targeting ships linked to Israel. This new maritime front has raised concerns about the safety of key shipping lanes in the region.
The Houthi rebels, who have been launching missiles and drones at Israel, recently hijacked a car transport ship in the Red Sea. The ship, named "Galaxy Leader," is operated by a Japanese company and owned by a business associated with an Israeli billionaire. The vessel, flying the Bahamian flag, was en route from Turkey to India and was not carrying any cargo at the time of the hijacking.
The crew of the "Galaxy Leader," comprising 25 members from the Philippines, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Mexico, were taken hostage. The Japanese shipping company, Nippon Yusen, confirmed the absence of Japanese crew members on board.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno stated that the Japanese government is negotiating with the Houthi rebels to ensure the safety of the crew. Japan is also in talks with Israel and has called on Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran to urge the Houthis to release the crew.
The Houthi rebels claim the hijacking was a response to the ship's links to Israel. Mohammed Abdul-Salam, a spokesperson for the Houthis, stated that the action was intended to demonstrate their capability to wage a "sea war" against Israel, emphasizing that this is just the beginning.
Israel has condemned the Houthi's actions as "terrorist acts," denying any connection to the hijacked ship. However, registration data reveals that the "Galaxy Leader" is owned by Ray Car Carriers, a company with ties to Israeli billionaire Abraham "Rami" Ungar.
Ray Car Carriers has previously been targeted, with Israel accusing Iran of orchestrating those attacks. Similarly, Israel has blamed Iran for the recent hijacking, a claim Iran has vehemently denied.
In the Yemeni civil war, a Saudi-led coalition supports the Yemeni government, while Iran backs the Houthi rebels. As relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia improve, direct negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis continue, focusing on ceasefire discussions.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh stated that Middle Eastern resistance groups act independently based on their interests. He condemned Israel's accusations as an attempt to divert attention from the Gaza conflict.
Despite Yemen being 1600 kilometers away from Israel, the Houthi rebels have been launching drones and missiles at Israel since the Gaza conflict escalated last month. Most of these have been intercepted by Israeli forces, with the U.S. military also downing several drones.
Military analysts believe that for the Houthis to breach Israel's defenses, they would need to launch a large number of missiles to overwhelm the Israeli air defense system, a challenging feat from 1600 kilometers away.
Considering the difficulty of striking Israel directly, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi rebels, announced earlier this month that Israeli ships in the Red Sea region would be their new target.
The Strait of Mandeb, a crucial passage in the southern Red Sea, is now at heightened risk. This narrow strait, only 20 kilometers wide at its narrowest point, lies between Yemen and the East African country of Djibouti. It is a vital maritime route connecting the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea.
Over 17,000 ships pass through the Strait of Mandeb daily, including oil tankers. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, an average of 6.2 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products are transported through the strait each day.
Before Egypt increased its natural gas production, the Strait of Mandeb was also a key route for liquefied natural gas imports for several Middle Eastern countries, with Egypt and Jordan importing up to 80% of their LNG through the strait.
Torbjorn Soltvedt, a chief analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at Verisk Maplecroft, added that in addition to oil, over 50 million tons of agricultural products are transported through the strait annually. He warned that the Houthi rebels are fully capable of targeting ships in the Strait of Mandeb.
Soltvedt believes that the risk of disruption to international shipping in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Strait of Mandeb is increasing. With no viable alternative routes, shipping companies may face significantly higher costs if they choose to avoid the strait for safety reasons. Since the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, war insurance rates for sea routes entering and leaving Israel have risen tenfold.
Amidst the ongoing conflict, the United States, a key ally of Israel, has become increasingly involved in the region. Currently, two U.S. carrier strike groups are deployed in the Middle East. The USS Gerald R. Ford is stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, while the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is in the Gulf of Oman, serving as a deterrent to Iran and Hezbollah.
In addition to the carrier strike groups, the U.S. has several ships monitoring Houthi missile launches. It remains unclear whether these ships will be used for escort duties in the Red Sea.
The International Maritime Security Construct has issued a warning to ships in the Red Sea, designating the Strait of Mandeb as an "area of concern." The organization advises ships to travel at night to reduce the likelihood of detection by hostile forces.