Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Iran-backed Houthi militia that controls northern Yemen threatened on Saturday to block any vessel sailing to Israeli ports, expanding its earlier warnings to ships passing through the Red and Arabian Seas.

The Houthi militia had already threatened to target ships owned or operated by Israelis, and its fighters were still holding a commercial vessel, the Galaxy Leader, that they hijacked last month with its 25 crew members. None of them are Israeli, according to Galaxy Maritime, the company that owns the vessel.

The statement, issued by a Houthi military spokesman, Yahya Sarea, represented a significant escalation in the militia’s campaign against Israel since the start of the war in Gaza.

The Houthis attributed their decision to their desire to confront the Israeli military’s “continuation of horrific massacres” in Gaza, Mr. Sarea said in the statement. The Yemeni militia “will prevent the passage of ships sailing to Israel, whatever their nationality, unless Gaza’s needs for food and medicine are met,” he added.

To what extent the Houthis would be able to carry out their newest threat is unclear; the militia’s capabilities often appear to be more constrained than its rhetoric. The Houthis control a deeply impoverished territory torn apart by war.

While analysts say the Houthis have significantly increased its military power in recent years, a majority of the missile and drone attacks that they have launched on Israeli and Saudi targets over the past eight years have been intercepted.

In November, the Houthis hijacked the Galaxy Leader in the Red Sea and sailed it to the coast of Yemen, where it has remained. A video of the hijacking released by the Houthis and verified by The New York Times showed at least 10 armed men on the deck of the roughly 600-foot-long vessel after jumping out of a military helicopter hovering just above it.

In its statement on Saturday, the militia said it wanted to maintain the “safety of shipping” and the continued flow of global trade through the Red and Arabian Seas “except for ships that are tied to Israel or that will carry goods to Israeli ports.”

Galaxy Maritime said in a statement earlier this week that it appeared that the crew was “being treated as well as can be expected in the circumstances.” The hijackers had allowed crew members to have “modest contact” with their families, the company added.

The company said “the 25 crew members being held have no connection whatsoever with the current situation in the region” and encouraged nations with citizens on the captive vessel to “redouble their efforts” to secure their release.

The Houthis took over the Yemeni capital, Sana, in 2014. After an unsuccessful attempt by a Saudi-led military coalition to rout the group, it now rules much of northern Yemen. The militia has become an important arm of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance, which includes Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and armed groups in Iraq.

Support for the Palestinian cause and hostility toward Israel have long been pillars of the Houthi narrative; “Death to Israel” is part of the group’s rallying cry.

Since the Israeli military began its bombardment of Gaza on Oct. 7 in response to the attacks in southern Israel by Hamas, Houthi leaders say they have attempted several missile and drone attacks on southern Israel, though there is no evidence they have succeeded.

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