May 19, 2024

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Yemen’s Houthis say they have taken control of an Israeli-owned ship in the southern Red Sea, with Israel describing the incident as an “Iranian act of terrorism” with consequences for international maritime security.

A Houthi military spokesman confirmed to Al Jazeera on Sunday that its fighters hijacked the British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship.

At least 22 people were onboard the Galaxy Leader – reported to be partly owned by an Israeli businessman – which was en route from Turkey to India.

“We have received confirmation from a Houthi official that they hijacked this ship. Earlier today [Sunday], they announced the beginning of operations to attack Israeli-flagged ships. They warned international sailors not to work for such companies,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed al-Attab, reporting from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

“We are treating the crew in accordance with Islamic norms and principles,” said Yemen’s Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree in a statement later on Sunday.

He renewed the warning that any ship belonging to Israel or those who support it will be a legitimate target for Houthi forces.

“We confirm our continuation of military operations against [Israel] until the aggression and ugly crimes against our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank stop,” said Saree.

The Houthis, backed by Tehran, have launched several missile and drone attacks against Israel since the latest assault on the besieged Gaza Strip began on October 7, killing more than 12,300 Palestinians, including 5,000 children.

“The Houthis have carried out a number of attacks on Iranian targets. We are expecting more attacks in the coming days,” al-Attab said.

The Israeli government called the hijack “a very serious event on a global level”, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office saying Israel was not involved in the ship’s ownership, operation or the makeup of its international crew.

“This is another Iranian act of terrorism that represents an escalation in Iran’s belligerence against the citizens of the free world, with concomitant international ramifications vis-a-vis the security of global shipping routes,” said a statement released by the prime minister’s office.

“There were no Israelis on the ship,” it said, adding the 25 crew members are from Ukraine, Mexico, the Philippines and Bulgaria, among other countries.

Israel’s military also denied the ship was Israeli. In a statement on X, it said: “The hijacking of a cargo ship by the Houthis near Yemen in the southern Red Sea is a very grave incident of global consequence.”

“The ship departed Turkey on its way to India, staffed by civilians of various nationalities, not including Israelis. It is not an Israeli ship,” the Israeli army said.

A United States defence official said the US is “aware of the situation and closely monitoring it”.

“What we understand is that the shipping company is partly owned by an Israeli businessman and this wouldn’t be the first time one of his ships was intercepted. In 2021, one of his vessels was also targeted,” said Al Jazeera’s Sara Khairat, reporting from occupied East Jerusalem.

Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said there has been no evidence put forth by Israel that Iran is behind the hijack.

“This is an accusation made by the Israeli prime minister’s office without any concrete evidence to support it,” she said.

The war in Gaza has sent tensions soaring in the region, with international organisations and political leaders warning of a potential wider regional conflict.

“Iran in the past has distanced itself from these various armed groups in the Middle East that are against Israel,” Jabbari said.

“But given Israel’s continuous bombardment of Gaza and what they call ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian population, the Iranians are saying the conflict could spread.”

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