Houthis claim new attacks on 'Israeli targets' despite US incentives

Before this week's attacks, the most recent rebel claim was on April 10

A UK warship launches a projectile to shoot down a missile fired by the Houthis on Wednesday, April 24. AP
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Yemen's Houthi group has taken responsibility for recent attacks on an Israeli ship and city, marking a new escalation following a relative lull, and despite the United States offering incentives to the militias to halt their attacks.

Military spokesperson Yahya Saree said on Thursday that the group targeted the MSC Darwin vessel with missiles and drones, claiming it was an Israeli ship. He also said the group targeted the southern city of Eilat. The Houthis have targeted Eilat before, but the projectiles tend to be intercepted or fall short.

A day earlier, he claimed that the Houthis attacked the Maersk Yorktown, identifying it as a US vessel, and another ship named MSC Veracruz, which he said was Israeli.

The Israeli military is yet to comment on the alleged strikes.

The US military said earlier on Thursday that an allied warship downed a Houthi missile headed for a vessel. It added on Friday that one anti-ship ballistic missile was launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen into the Gulf of Aden without causing damage or injuries, and that it successfully engaged and destroyed another unmanned surface vessel and one unmanned aerial vehicle in Yemen.

Pentagon press secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that "in terms of the Houthi mindset in terms of why they opted to not conduct attacks for a couple of weeks, that’s really something best left for them to address".

Adding that Washington's focus hasn't shifted, which is "working with our international partners to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Red Sea. And so as long as there continues to be a threat to international shipping and to the lives and safety of mariners transiting the Red Sea, we’ll continue to work with international partners to degrade and disrupt with the capability or the back".

Since the outbreak of Israel's war in Gaza in October, the Yemeni rebels, who control Sanaa and territories in the north and west, launched dozens of attacks on international shipping in the strategic waters off Yemen.

The group claimed the attacks were being carried out in solidarity with Palestinians and their ally Hamas in the coastal enclave, demanding an end to Israel’s devastating war, which has killed more than 34,000 people.

Before Wednesday's attack, the most recent rebel attack was on April 10.

Sources told The National this week that mediators have conveyed messages from the US to the Iranian-backed Houthis, offering “incentives”, including lifting the blockade of Sanaa and Hodeidah, and accelerating peace talks, in return for the group halting its attacks in the Red Sea.

US officials declined to comment on the incentives.

However, Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, on Wednesday said her administration "encouraged the sort of indirect and then direct discussions that led to a two-plus year of cessation of hostilities".

Much like Hezbollah in Lebanon and other armed groups in Syria and Iraq, the Houthis are part of the Axis of Resistance, an anti-western political and military coalition led by Tehran.

The heavily armed militia has bolstered its fighting capabilities since the civil war started in the country in 2014, posing a serious threat to its neighbours. Up until the end of 2018, the Houthis frequently used ballistic missiles they captured from army depots. But in the past five years, they have shifted to small, long-range, explosive unmanned aircraft that can evade radar detection.

Their attacks in the Red Sea have disrupted global shipping, forcing companies to reroute to longer and more expensive journeys around southern Africa.

This emergence as an off-script threat to Israel and a strategic shipping route prompted retaliatory strikes by the US and Britain since February. Washington also designated the militia that has seized control of Yemen's capital in late 2014 as a “terrorist group”.

Yemeni political source indicated that the US incentives offered to the Houthis “include measures to show Washington's good intentions, such as accelerating the Yemeni peace process, ending the war, and fully lifting the blockade” on Sanaa airport and the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah.

The sources declined to comment on how the Houthis have responded to the incentives, whether positively or negatively.

Strikes by the Houthis have fallen amid the US-led aerial campaign against the group. Still, they have nonetheless managed to conduct more than 50 attacks against shipping since November, according to the US Maritime Administration.

Yoel Guzansky, senior researcher at Israeli think tank INSS, said the strikes would not mark a “significant escalation,” instead being a “continuation of the same trend we’ve seen in the past 6 months”.

The Houthis have been hitting shipping lanes for much of the Gaza War, claiming that they are targeting vessels connected to Israel, even though they most often do not.

“What would be interesting in this case is that it would have come after the clash between Israel and Iran,” Mr Guzansky added.

“That has now ended, but Iranian proxies like, the Houthis, Hezbollah and Hamas have managed to keep the conflict going. Iran now appears to have been a separate issue, even though it’s behind all those forces that are still attacking Israel. It’s like a separate conflict.”

The reduction in the frequency of Houthis attacks comes as indirect talks between Iran and the US attempt to build on an unannounced truce in Iraq to expand it across conflict-hit areas of the Middle East. The truce saw a cessation of attacks by Iraqi militias on US forces.

The Yemeni political sources reported that during "secret indirect talks" held with the Iranians in Oman about three months ago, there was an American effort to persuade Tehran to help de-escalate the "Yemeni front".

Updated: April 26, 2024, 4:46 PM