Israel-linked ships divert as Houthis threaten more Red Sea attacks
Iran-back Houthi rebels have pledged to continue targeting ships with direct, or indirect, links to Israel
The seizure of the vehicle carrier Galaxy Leader at the hands of Houthi rebels has prompted Israel-linked ships to divert away from the Red Sea and security analysts have warned that the risk of collateral damage via mistaken identity is high
SOME Israel-linked ships have started to divert away from the Red Sea following the successful hijack of a car carrier at the hands of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who have pledged to continue targeting ships with direct, or indirect links to Israel.
While the attack — which saw armed men repelling from a helicopter to seize the Bahamas-flagged, pure car and truck carrier Galaxy Leader (IMO: 9237307) — has not significantly raised the threat assessment for vessels with no affiliation to Israeli interests, security analysts have warned that the risk of collateral damage via mistaken identity is high.
Galaxy Leader is registered to an Isle of Man-based company, Galaxy Maritime, managed by a Greek firm Stamco Ship Management and chartered to Japanese line NYK. On board the ship are 25 crew members of different nationalities, including Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Filipinos and Mexicans. However, the ship was targeted because it is beneficially owned by a unit of Israeli businessman Rami Ungar’s Ray Shipping Group.
That link to Israel was enough to make another vessel from that company, Helios Ray (IMO: 9690547), a target in the Gulf of Oman in February 2021 during a previous series of tit-for-tat attacks on ships which preceded the current Israel/Hamas conflict.
A spokesperson for the Houthis said Israeli ships would continue to be targeted until the military operation against Hamas ends.
“As part of military operations against Israel... our military forces will not hesitate to target any Israeli ship in the Red Sea, or wherever is within our reach,” said the spokesman for the Houthi-Yemen Military Forces, Yahya Sare’e, in a televised statement shared on social media platforms.
The attack off the coast of Yemen comes just days after the Houthis issued a graphic with captions in Hebrew, Arabic and English that said, “We will sink your ships”, specifying that Israeli-flagged vessels as well as ships owned or operated by Israeli companies would be considered targets.
Two PCTCs beneficially owned by Ray Shipping Group, have already diverted their course to exit the Red Sea in the wake of the attack.
Glovis Star (IMO: 9736808) entered the Red Sea via the Suez Canal heading to China. However, it turned around shortly after the hijacking and headed back toward the canal before stopping on Monday afternoon.
Similarly, Hermes Leader had been steaming towards the Red Sea when it performed a U-turn off the coast of Yemen directly after the attack.
What is more, the trend was not limited to vessels directly linked to Galaxy Leader or Ray Shipping Group.
Lloyd’s List has tracked at least two other vessels with ownership links to Israel that have diverted course since the hijack. These ships are not being identified for security reasons.
The seizure of Galaxy Leader has been widely interpreted as another development in the ongoing tit-for-tat hostilities between Israel and Iran, via its proxies, including the Yemen Houthi rebels.
“The fact that the hijack was conducted using repelling from a helicopter demonstrates that the Houthis have capabilities beyond those of the average terrorist organisation. This should be factored in in the ship security risk assessment,” warned Jakob Larsen, head of maritime safety and security at BIMCO.
The hijacking of Galaxy Leader is the first time Houthis have been seen conducting a helicopter operation at sea, suggesting that the scope of their operations has now increased significantly.
Even before the attack, security risk assessments had been increased.
The International Maritime Security Construct, a coalition of naval forces operating in the region, last week issued a warning for vessels traveling through the Bab al Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea.
On November 16, three days prior to the attack, the IMSC issued an advisory warning ships to stay as far away from Yemeni waters as possible and recommended travel at night whenever possible.
While the area is patrolled by both Saudi and UN Navy vessels, unless they are actively escorting a ship the response time and clearance required to intervene leaves ships vulnerable to helicopter attack.
Galaxy Leader only disabled its AIS after the attack, suggesting that it was caught by surprise.
Unverified video footage of the attack purporting to show Houthi forces landing on the vessel via helicopter, indicate the vessel’s crew had little time to respond.
The fate of Galaxy Leader and its 25 crew is not yet known. However, it is assumed that the vessel will be taken into Houthi territory.
Bahamas flag state officials and the vessel’s operators are in contact with several local governments as they seek to establish the terms of the vessel’s release.
On Monday morning, NYK set up a crisis management centre at its Tokyo head office to gather information and handle the incident.
Japan on Monday condemned the hijacking. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the Japanese government was doing its utmost for an early release of the crew through negotiations with Houthi rebels, while also communicating with Israel and cooperating with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran.
Israel, meanwhile, has sought to distance itself from the incident. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office condemned the seizure as an “Iranian act of terror”. The Israeli military called the hijacking a “very grave incident of global consequence”. However, a spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces said via X that it was not an Israeli vessel.
“This is a ship that left Türkiye on its way to India with an international civilian crew, with no Israeli crew members on board. The ship that has been hijacked is not an Israeli ship,” he said.