Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized a cargo ship in the Red Sea on Sunday, taking 25 crew members hostage, in an apparent escalation against Israel amid the Gaza war.
The Houthis claimed to have captured the Galaxy Leader, which the group described as an Israeli ship, saying they were bringing it back to Yemen.
Video released on Monday showed armed fighters climbing onto the deck via helicopter and storming the ship’s bridge. The group said its forces “will deal with the ship’s crew in accordance with the teachings and values of the Islamic religion.”
The ship is reportedly linked to an Israeli businessman
The moment Houthi fighters are on the deck of the ship
Israel’s military described the hijacking as a “serious incident” but denied the Galaxy Leader was an Israeli ship and said there were no Israelis on board. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Houthis of seizing the ship “at the direction of Iran” – a charge Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman denied on Monday. Netanyahu’s office said the ship was British-owned and operated by a Japanese company.
Galaxy Leader is listed as the property of Ray Car Carriers, an Isle of Man-based company associated with Israeli businessman Abraham “Rami” Ungar. At least two other Ray-owned cargo ships were hit by previous Iranian attacks in 2021 in Gulf waters, according to an Al Monitor article.
Ungar, a prominent Israeli billionaire and close associate of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, declined to comment on the details of the latest incident when asked.
The meaning of the act
The attack marks a new level of escalation as the Houthis have assumed a prominent role among various Iranian-backed groups, launching provocative attacks against Israel in response to the war against the Palestinians.
The group has claimed responsibility for previous attacks on shipping, but this is the first time Yemeni fighters have seized control of a merchant ship following a helicopter raid.
The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2015 and have since gained control of most of the country, despite a military campaign by the US-backed Saudi-led coalition to halt their gains .
Houthi military helicopter flies over Galaxy Leader
US officials also said the group continued to receive weapons from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps despite US-brokered peace talks with Saudi Arabia aimed at ending Yemen’s civil war.
After the start of the war in Gaza, the Houthis claimed to have fired at least two long-range missiles at Israel last month.
Relations with the USA
The attacks marked the first foreign missile fire targeting Israel since the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein fired SCUD missiles at the Jewish state during the 1991 Gulf War.
A US Navy destroyer and the Saudi military repelled a large barrage of cruise missiles and drones fired from Yemen toward Israel in late October, repelling an apparent attempt by the Houthis to open a new front amid the campaign. of Israel in Gaza.
The Houthis then shot down a US MQ-9 drone over the Red Sea on November 8, accusing the United States of gathering intelligence on behalf of the Israelis.
“We will meet… about our next steps”
In Iraq and Syria, the United States has accused Iran-backed groups, including Hezbollah, of being behind more than 60 attempted missile and drone attacks on bases used by U.S. troops since Oct. 17 , amid their fight against the remnants of the Islamic State.
Pentagon officials tried to downplay the attacks as separate from the Israel-Hamas war, but privately admitted that three rounds of US airstrikes had failed to stem the steady flow of fire.
“The capture of the Galaxy Leader ship by Houthi fighters in the Red Sea is a flagrant violation of international law,” a US military official told Al-Monitor.
“We demand the immediate release of the ship and its crew. We will confer with our allies and UN partners on appropriate next steps,” the official said.