Iran-backed Houthi rebels accused of hijacking ship linked to Israeli billionaire in Red Sea

A cargo ship linked to an Israeli billionaire was allegedly seized by Iran-backed rebels in the Red Sea on Sunday. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it “strongly condemns the Iranian attack against an international vessel.” 

“The ship, which is owned by a British company and is operated by a Japanese firm, was hijacked with Iran guidance by the Yemenite Houthi militia,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “Onboard the vessel are 25 crew members of various nationalities, including Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Filipino and Mexican. No Israelis are onboard. This is another act of Iranian terrorism and constitutes a leap forward in Iran’s aggression against the citizens of the free world, with international consequences regarding the security of the global shipping lanes.” 

Israel Defense Forces also wrote on X, “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.” 

While Israeli officials insisted the vessell was British-owned and Japanese-operated, ownership details for the Bahamian-flagged Galaxy Leader, a vehicle carrier, in public shipping databases associated the ship’s owners with Ray Car Carriers, which was founded by Abraham “Rami” Ungar, who is known as one of the richest men in Israel, according to The Associated Press. 

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Ungar told the AP he was aware of the incident but couldn’t comment as he awaited details.

The complex world of international shipping often involves a series of management companies, flags and owners stretching across the globe in a single vessel.

There was no immediate comment from the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group in Yemen that threatened earlier Sunday to target Israeli-linked vessels in the Red Sea. 

A spokesperson for the Houthi military in Yemen, Yahya Sarea, vowed on X earlier Sunday, “In solidarity with Palestinian people in the wake of the brutal Israeli aggression on Gaza, Yemen reiterates the threat against Israeli vessels in the Red Sea.”

“The Yemeni Armed Forces announce that they will target all of the following types of ships: 1. Ships carrying the flag of the Zionist entity 2. Ships operated by Israeli companies 3. Ships owned by Israeli companies,” he wrote. “The Yemeni Armed Forces also calls on all countries of the world to: a. Withdrawal of its citizens working on the crews of these ships. B. Avoid shipping on or handling these vessels. C. Inform your ships to stay away from these ships.”

Last month, Houthi rebels were suspected of sending missiles and drones over the crucial shipping lane of the sea.

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Satellite tracking data from MarineTraffic.com analyzed by the AP showed the Galaxy Leader traveling in the Red Sea southwest of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, more than a day ago. The vessel had been in Korfez, Turkey, and was on its way to Pipavav, India, at the time of the seizure reported by Israel.

It had its Automatic Identification System tracker, or AIS, switched off, the data showed. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS active for safety reasons, but crews will turn them off if it appears they might be targeted or to smuggle contraband, which there was no immediate evidence to suggest was the case with the Galaxy Leader.

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which provides warnings to sailors in the Persian Gulf and the wider region, put the hijacking as having occurred some 90 miles off the coast of Yemen’s port city of Hodeida, near the coast of Eritrea.

The Red Sea, stretching from Egypt’s Suez Canal to the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait separating the Arabian Peninsula from Africa, remains a key trade route for global shipping and energy supplies. That’s why the U.S. Navy has stationed multiple ships in the sea since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7.

An American defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, told the AP that U.S. military officials were tracking an incident involving the Galaxy Leader after its alleged hijacking. 

A ship linked to Ungar experienced an explosion in 2021 in the Gulf of Oman. Israeli media blamed it on Iran at the time. Since 2019, a series of ships have come under attack at sea as Iran began breaking all the limits of its tattered nuclear deal with world powers. 

As Israel expands its devastating campaign against Hamas in the besieged Gaza Strip following the militant group’s unprecedented attack on southern Israel, fears have grown that the military operations could escalate into a wider regional conflict.

The Houthis have repeatedly threatened to target Israeli ships in the waters off Yemen.

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