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Israel–Hamas Conflict and Maritime Security in Red Sea

Ms Saman Ayesha Kidwai is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 19, 2024


    The latest phase of the Israel–Hamas conflict has spurred a flurry of responses of solidarity from various corners, including the Yemeni Houthis. In November 2023, Houthis began their intervention in the Red Sea using drone and missile strikes, targeting commercial vessels linked to Israel. Yahya Sare’e, spokesperson for the Houthis, underlined the factors driving the most recent escalation in this strategically significant maritime space when he stated “If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces.”1  

    The Shiite rebels have conducted drone strikes and seized Western and Israeli assets such as cargo ships in the Red Sea in support of Hamas, which is locked in an armed confrontation with Israel. The first vessel targeted by Houthis was the Galaxy Leader, partly operated by a British company owned by Rami Unger, an Israeli shipping magnate.2 At least five major shipping companies—BP, MSC, CMA CGM Group, Maersk, and Hapag-Llyod—had to reroute or halt operations in the Red Sea, given the barrage of attacks by the Houthis.3

    US-led Naval Coalition and Regional Responses

    As the maritime crisis escalated with the increase in the number and intensity of attacks carried out by Houthis in December 2023, the Americans, along with some of their key allies like France, Bahrain, and the United Kingdom, established a naval alliance to secure shipping routes running through the Red Sea and counter strikes launched by Houthis.4 Hours after the naval alliance was announced, Houthis responded with a drone strike against Swan Atlantic, a Norwegian vessel.5

    Most of the regional countries in West Asia have overtly balked at joining this front, including one of the United States’ most pivotal allies, Saudi Arabia. As it begins focusing inwards on its ambitious roadmap for economic prosperity, Saudi Vision 2030, Riyadh wants to retract as swiftly as possible from the prolonged conflict it has waged in Yemen against the Houthis. The repercussions of that conflict have been felt within its borders as well, as seen in the drone strikes on Aramco oil facility in 2021 and 2022.6

    Saudi Arabia also wants to maintain peace with Iran and modernise its image by moving away from the Salafi-Wahhabi radical teachings it became infamously known globally. Backing the naval coalition would have meant opening another front against the Houthis and becoming further entrenched in a conflict zone it wants to leave behind, potentially reigniting the West Asian Cold War with Tehran that was put to rest after the truce negotiated by Beijing.

    Furthermore, despite their ideological opposition to Iran and Tehran-backed Shiite rebels like Houthis, most of the Arab countries have refused to participate in matters perceived as being pro-Israel. The monarchical regimes in the Gulf, having survived the tumult brought about by the Arab Spring, undoubtedly refuse to be weakened any further by civil society movements driven by their actions perceived as justifying Israel’s actions in Gaza. Their populations, sympathetic to their Arab brethren in Palestinian territories, have swarmed the streets, displaying their solidarity with those fighting against Israel. Bahrain is a member of Operation Prosperity Guardian because it is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

    Additionally, NATO allies like Spain, France, and Germany have proven reluctant to support American initiatives in the Red Sea, possibly due to three primary reasons: 

    1. They want to refrain from being seen as party to American culpability in allowing the Gazan conflict to continue amid rising humanitarian costs and anti-Israel public opinion.7
    2. As the broader regional opinion has recently begun turning away from resolutely supporting Ukraine in the ongoing crisis and governments have failed to deliver on the far-reaching pledges made to Kyiv, there is an absence of appetite to be dragged into another armed conflict, this time beyond their immediate shores.
    3. Since the Red Sea houses critical trading routes, European countries want to avoid being targeted by Houthi drone strikes or having their vessels seized, as a result of which resources and lives would be put at risk.

    Iran has rejected calls by the US and the UK to pull back support to Houthis due to its long-standing anti-Western policy and having itself faced constant economic sanctions and curbs. In a statement on X, Iran noted that

    ‘The Israeli regime cannot be allowed to commit massacres of women and children and genocide in Gaza and set the region on fire while stopping of a Zionist ship in the Red Sea is seen as endangering the security of this economic waterway.’8

    Despite being dependent on Red Sea waters to generate $10 billion in revenue annually,9 Egypt exercised caution in criticising Houthi actions or joining the US-led naval coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian.10

    US Stance

    In a Joint Statement, the US and its allies have termed the Houthi actions as reckless.11 The US and the United Kingdom launched air and sea strikes on Yemeni cities like Dhamar, Sanaa, and Saada in January 2024. These strikes were launched to deter further attacks by rebel forces as part of their joint counter-response to the continued maritime crisis. Submarine and warship-launched Tomahawk missiles and fighter jets were used to carry out the strikes. Over 60 targets were attacked, including munition depots and launching systems, across 16 sites.12 The Houthis decried these actions as ‘American-Zionist-British aggression’.13

    The US and the UK though are unlikely to launch a full-scale war against the Houthis as it would deviate the attention from the Gazan and Ukrainian conflicts while exacerbating critical voices within the country who have expressed disdain at redirection of resources towards conflicts that do not affect Americans’ daily lives.14 At the same time, Washington might be inclined to increase pressure on Tel Aviv to allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza amid renewed ceasefire attempts.

    Houthi Position

    The display of solidarity with Hamas cannot be outrightly denoted as only having strategic aims. There is shared animosity towards Israel and its oldest supporter and strategic ally, the United States, held responsible for worsening Palestinian experiences. However, it can be argued that moral and ethical considerations are insufficient to explain the Houthis’ bold actions in the Red Sea.

    Instead, it is also required that the ongoing crisis in Yemen is factored in while assessing the strikes or seizures carried out by the rebel forces. As has been the case globally, various non-state actors, inspired by the Afghan Taliban, believe they can emerge victorious in their efforts even against some of the most powerful armies, including those of the US, or at least pose significant difficulties in their path. Houthis are not ignorant of this trend.

    Moreover, even as efforts are underway to negotiate an end to the armed conflict in Yemen, Houthis are presumably determined to come out on the other side with as much leverage as possible to position themselves as the sole powerbroker and rulers in a post-conflict society. This requires them to establish their defined areas of influence, more so in the surrounding maritime domain where some of the world’s most critical trading routes are situated.

    They would also be looking to gain acceptance as the only credible actor standing up to Israel within the region. In contrast, most state actors, besides rhetoric, have been criticised for failing to drum up a collective response to alleviate Palestinian grievances, disregarding the impact of Israel’s military actions in Gaza while normalising ties with Tel Aviv. Houthis want to cultivate a regional narrative that they hold a greater stake and wield more influence vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia or Egypt in determining the fate of the Gazan conflict and the future regional landscape.

    Economic Repercussions

    The impact of disruptions in global supply chains is visible due to continued turmoil in the Red Sea. Shipping companies’ operations have been affected due to uncertainty surrounding their freedom of navigation, as many have refused to put their vessels and crew in the line of fire. Due to the ongoing maritime crisis, companies have been compelled to reroute the goods being exported or imported through Africa,15 which has lengthened the time required for vessels to reach their destinations and increased cumulative costs incurred.

    India has maintained overall protection of its vessels and crew personnel amid constant strikes and counter-strikes in the Red Sea, repelling the attack on MV Chem Pluto off its Western coast on 23 December 2023. Nonetheless, it is expected to continue experiencing a reduction in petroleum, chemicals, and cereals exports as shipping vessels travelling through this region have reduced in numbers.16 The Indian Navy has deployed front-line guided missile destroyers to protect Indian maritime interests.17


    Houthis have emerged as an important non-state actor in West Asia, by opening a quasi-front in the latest phase of the Gazan crisis and positioning themselves as Hamas’ allies. The actions of the Yemeni rebels have highlighted that festering issues such as the Israel–Palestine conflict can be exploited and played out in theatres far beyond the epicentres. The Houthi actions have highlighted the need for reliable and enhanced maritime security measures in the Red Sea with the involvement of all regional stakeholders.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.