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Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking Israeli ships?

TJI Wrap
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Helicopter hovering over ship at sea

Houthi militias taking over the Galaxy Leader (Houthi Military Media / Reuters/ Haaretz)

Published: 14 December 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Australia is considering a US request to help guard ships near Yemen's Red Sea port as Houthi attacks threaten to open another front in the Israel-Hamas War.

Yemen's Houthis announced on Tuesday that they had hit a Norwegian commercial tanker with a missile in their latest protest against Israel's bombardment of Gaza, underlining the risks that the Israel-Hamas conflict will spread further across the Middle East.

The attack is the most serious in a series of escalating assaults on Israeli targets in the Red Sea over the past two months. The group attacked the tanker, the STRINDA, because it was delivering crude oil to an Israeli terminal and after its crew ignored all warnings, Houthi military spokesperson Yehia Sarea said in a statement.

The US Navy destroyer Mason responded to the STRINDA's distress calls and assisted the crew, which was grappling with a fire, the US military said. Following the attack, Israel’s military said it had deployed one of its most advanced warships, a Sa'ar 6 class corvette, in the Red Sea.

"The actions that we've seen by these Houthis forces are destabilising, they're dangerous," Pentagon spokesperson Major General Patrick Ryder told a press conference on Tuesday.

The US has requested Australia send a warship to the Red Sea in response to the Houthis attacks and support an international taskforce to guard ships in the region. Treasurer Jim Chalmers confirmed to the ABC that the government was considering the US request.

"It is important to recognise we already make a contribution to maritime security in that part of the world, often dangerous part of the world. When we get these kinds of requests from time to time, the usual practice would be for the defence minister to consider that," Mr Chalmers said.

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis are a rebel movement that took control of Yemen’s capital in 2014, triggering a years-long civil war. Backed by Iran, the extreme group, officially called Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), is at war with government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia, the US and a coalition of mostly Gulf Arab nations. The United States has provided military support to the Saudi-led coalition throughout the war.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, which has engulfed Yemen for the past nine years, alongside a spiraling humanitarian emergency.

The group, which began as a religious protest movement, uses the slogan “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews”.

Why are they attacking Israeli ships?

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the Houthis have claimed that ships linked to Israel or headed to its ports passing by Yemen’s Red Sea coastline are legitimate targets.

The shipping route — connecting European ports to their Asian counterparts via the Suez Canal — is a crucial passage for global commerce and among the busiest in the world. Some 8.8 million barrels of oil pass through the area each day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A Houthi spokesman said the group would continue blocking ships heading to Israeli ports until Israel allows the entry of food and medical aid into the Gaza Strip. Israel denies restricting the entry of food, water, medicines and shelter into the Gaza Strip, which its forces have bombarded in retaliation against Hamas for the October 7 attack.

The Houthis’ leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi has further threatened that if the United States intervened in Gaza, the Houthis will respond with “missile strikes, drones and military options”, the Houthi-run Masirah news channel reported.

What attacks have occurred so far?

Yemen's Houthis have been disrupting Red Sea maritime trade for the past two months, attacking ships owned by Israelis or ones they determine are en route to Israel.

At least seven ships have been targeted over the past month, using cruise missiles, drones, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. The first ship targeted was the Galaxy Leader, partially owned by a British company controlled by Israeli shipping magnate Rami Ungar. The Houthis commandeered the ship and sailed it to Yemen.

The latest was the Norwegian tanker STRINDA, which was struck by a missile this week.

The missiles are new kind of weapon which presents an additional threat to shipping. Ballistic missiles are designed to hit stationary targets like cities and strategic installations. China and Iran have taken them a step further, developing ballistic missiles capable of hitting moving ships. Over the last weeks, the Houthis have twice fired such projectiles at freighters.

According to Fabian Hinz, a research fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Houthis possess a number of anti-ship ballistic missiles, or ASBMs, all of them made in Iran and based on Iranian platforms or technologies.


Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships in the Red Sea? (Washington Post)

Houthis threaten Red Sea shipping with groundbreaking Iranian missile (Haaretz)

Yemen's Houthis claim attack on Norwegian tanker (Reuters)

Threats from Yemen are increasing. It’s time to redesignate the Houthis (Atlantic Council)

The Red Sea Front: All the ships attacked by Yemen's Houthis (Haaretz)

US requests Australia send warship to Red Sea to guard against Houthi rebels (ABC)

Australia considers US request to send warship to Red Sea as Houthis target shipping lanes (Guardian)


As Houthis Threaten Ships in the Red Sea, the West Stumbles (Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz)

Yemen's Houthi regime is capable of paralyzing the most important shipping lanes in the world through the Bab el-Mandab Strait, posing an intolerable threat for the U.S. and countries in the region.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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