Israeli ships are a “legitimate target”, Yemen’s Huthi rebels warned on Monday, after their seizure of an Israel-linked cargo vessel opened a new dimension in the Gaza war.
Sunday’s capture of the Galaxy Leader and its 25 international crew came days after the Iran-backed Huthis threatened to target Israeli shipping over the Israel-Hamas war.
The Huthis, declaring themselves part of the “axis of resistance” of Iran’s allies and proxies, have also launched a series of drones and missiles towards Israel.
“Israeli ships are legitimate targets for us anywhere… and we will not hesitate to take action,” Major General Ali Al-Moshki, a Huthi military official, told the group’s Al-Massirah TV station.
Analysts said Huthi threats to shipping around the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a choke-point at the foot of the commercially vital Red Sea, were likely to rise.
The Bahamas-flagged, British-owned Galaxy Leader is operated by a Japanese firm but has links to Israeli businessman Abraham “Rami” Ungar.
The Huthis said the capture was in retaliation for Israel’s war against Hamas, sparked by the October 7 attack by the Palestinian militants who killed 1,200 people and took around 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
More than 13,000 people have since been killed in Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground operations in the Gaza Strip, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says.
Sunday’s ship seizure “is only the beginning,” Huthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said Sunday in a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, pledging further maritime attacks until Israel halts its Gaza campaign.
On Monday the rebels released a video purporting to show Sunday’s seizure.
The footage showed masked armed men jumping onto the ship from a helicopter while the vessel was still moving, and holding crew members at gunpoint. Palestinian and Yemeni flags were raised on board.
AFP could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.
The vessel headed from Turkey to India was re-routed to the Yemeni port of Salif port in Hodeida province, according to maritime security company Ambrey.
Ambrey said the owner of the Galaxy Leader, which transports cars and other vehicles, is listed as Britain’s Ray Car Carriers whose parent company belongs to Israeli businessman Ungar.
Israel’s military said the seizure was a “very grave incident of global consequence”, while a US military official called it “a flagrant violation of international law”.
The crew were reportedly “under investigation” by the Huthis, Ambrey said. They include Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Filipinos, Mexicans and a Romanian, according to Israeli and Romananian officials.
Nippon Yusen, also known as NYK Line of Japan, said it had set up a task team to gather information and ensure the crew’s safety.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said Tokyo was “directly approaching the Huthis” as well as communicating with Israel.
“We are also urging Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other countries concerned to strongly urge the Huthis for the early release of the vessel and crew members,” she said.
‘Threat likely to rise’
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterised the capture as an “Iranian attack against an international vessel”, an accusation dismissed by Iran.
“We have repeatedly announced that the resistance groups in the region represent their countries and make decisions and act based on the interests of their countries,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani.
Yemen’s coastline overlooks the Bab al-Mandab Strait — a narrow pass between Yemen and Djibouti at the foot of the Red Sea — which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and carries about a fifth of global oil consumption.
“The threat of disruption to shipping in the wider region is likely to rise,” Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft told AFP.
“If security concerns compel shipping companies to avoid the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the result will be significantly higher costs due to the lack of alternative routes.”
Mohammed al-Basha, senior Middle East analyst for the US-based Navanti Group said the failure of Huthi missile and drone launches to hit targets inside Israel “might have influenced the decision to refocus on the Red Sea arena”.
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