Houthi rebels in Yemen have escalated their attacks against Israel. According to a spokesperson of the Iran-backed militia, they on Sunday hijacked the "Galaxy Leader" cargo ship with around 25 crew members in the southern Red Sea.
Maritime security company Ambrey has meanwhile confirmed that the vessel's group owner is listed as Ray Car Carriers, whose parent company belongs to Abraham Ungar, an Israeli businessman.
However, according to Israeli officials and the shipping company, none of the people on board are Israeli, and the vessel was sailing under Japanese flag.
Japan's Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said in a statement that Tokyo was "communicating with Israel, and in addition to directly approaching the Houthis, we are also urging Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other countries concerned to strongly urge the Houthis for the early release of the vessel and crew members."
Meanwhile, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the cargo vessel had been "hijacked with Iran guidance by the Yemenite Houthi militia".
According to news agency AFP however, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said Israel's accusations were "invalid" and that "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."
Since the beginning of the current conflict, which was prompted by the Hamas terror attack on Israel on October 7, several aerial strikes by the Houthi militia were intercepted before they could reach Eilat, Israel's southernmost city.
An expected escalation
For Fabian Hinz, who specializes in defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an attack on a ship in the Red Sea had been expected. "There were fears that the Houthis might start launching kinetic attacks [active warfare] on civilian ships in order to actually sink them, however, they decided to escalate on a lower level," he told DW.
"This is very reminiscent of actions that Iran itself launched in the Persian Gulf, where it repeatedly hijacked civilian ships that were somehow connected to its adversaries via ownership structures," he said.
"These hijacked ships and the crews were then used as political leverage," he explained.
However, Hinz doubts that Iran's role in the hijacking of the "Galaxy Leader" was comprehensive.
"The Iranians have the Behshad in the area, a cargo ship converted into an operational base, which is probably also used for espionage purposes, and it is quite possible that they have helped a little with intelligence," he told DW.
However, despite this escalation by the Houthi rebels, Yemen is not fit to add the Red Sea as a new front. A civil war which began in 2014 when the Houthis ousted the Yemeni government and took control of the capital Sanaa, has left the country with a fractured political landscape and damaged infrastructure. The conflict, which is widely regarded as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has also led to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, according to the United Nations.
Regional instability helps Hamas
"The regional signal is to drive insecurity and instability across the region and to set the Houthis apart from Arab governments that have normalized ties with Israel, like the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, or have attempted to do so, like Saudi Arabia," Matthew Hedges, a Yemen and Middle East expert in London, told DW.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized their ties with Israel in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords brokered by the United States. Israel and Saudi Arabia also appeared to be on a similar course, but talks have stalled as a consequence of the current Israel-Hamas conflict.
"The Houthis put pressure on other communities across the region to align the pan-Islamic narrative whereby the Houthis are responding to Israeli attacks against all Muslims, and by doing so, the Houthis lead the call that all Muslims need to attack Israel," he added.
This view is echoed by Farea Al-Muslimi, a Middle East and North Africa research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "The Red Sea is the most recent but clearly the most crucial frontline of the 'axis of resistance' against Israel and the United States in the Middle East," he told DW.
"No one should underestimate the Houthi recklessness and unfortunately, more of these attacks are likely to come over the next weeks, including attacks on non-Israeli ships, which will be targeted by the Houthis as soon as they can," he added.
Edited by: Andreas Illmer