Yemen’s Houthi militia hijacked a ship in the Red Sea on Sunday, in what the Iran-backed group said was a demonstration of support for “the oppressed Palestinian people.”
Only hours earlier, the group had threatened to target Israeli-flagged, -owned and -operated ships traversing the Red Sea.
The Israeli military called the episode on Sunday a “grave event,” saying that the ship was en route to India from Turkey and had an “international crew, without Israelis.”
“This is not an Israeli ship,” the military said in a statement.
The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a statement that the vessel was British-owned and operated by a Japanese company. It had 25 crew members on board, the statement said, condemning the attack without naming the vessel.
The Houthis, however, said they had hijacked an “Israeli ship” and taken it to the Yemeni coast. They said they would deal with its crew members “in accordance with the teachings and values of our Islamic religion.”
News reports identified the ship as the Galaxy Leader, which bore no obvious links to Israel. The ship sailed under the flag of the Bahamas — a popular place for ship registration because of tax advantages — and is listed as a vehicle carrier owned by an Isle of Man-based firm called Ray Car Carriers Ltd., according to Marine Traffic, a real-time maritime data platform.
The company’s beneficial owner appears to have at some point been the Israeli billionaire Rami Ungar, according to the Paradise Papers, a major leak of confidential documents that in 2017 exposed a hidden world of wealth and ownerships. Mr. Ungar — who is routinely cited as the ultimate owner of Ray Car Carriers in maritime trade media — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 620-foot Galaxy Leader departed from Turkey’s port of Korfez on Nov. 12 and was headed to India’s Pipavav, according to Marine Traffic. It last transmitted its location on Saturday morning from the middle of the Red Sea, off the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
Support for the Palestinian cause and hostility toward Israel has long been a pillar of the Houthi narrative; “Death to Israel” is part of the group’s rallying cry. Since the Israeli military began its bombardment of Gaza — responding to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, the Iran-backed armed group that controls Gaza — Houthi leaders have issued repeated threats to enter the fray. Last month, the Houthis claimed an attempted missile and drone attack on southern Israel, and said the group might attack Israeli ships in the Red Sea.
The Houthis took over the Yemeni capital, Sana, in 2014. After an unsuccessful attempt by a Saudi-led military coalition to rout the group, it now rules much of northern Yemen. The militia has also become an important arm of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance, which includes the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and armed groups in Iraq.
In their statement on Sunday, the Houthis vowed to continue carrying out military operations against Israel “until the aggression on Gaza stops.”