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The Israel-Hamas War: Operation Iron Sword
Iran-Backed Houthis Launch Attacks

(October 7, 2023 - Present)
By Mitchell Bard

Unexpectedly, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who have no territorial dispute with Israel, began firing missiles at Israel and shipping in the Red Sea on November 19, 2023. They claimed it was in support of the Palestinians in Gaza and directed only at ships belonging to Israelis or heading for Israeli ports. Their engagement appeared to be part of an Iranian strategy to force Israel to fight on multiple fronts. Iranian proxies were already attacking Israel from Lebanon and Syria. The Houthis’ actions had a broader impact as their attacks escalated and targeted U.S. and British Navy vessels and ships with nothing to do with Israel. Subsequently, international shipping companies rerouted their ships.

Early on, a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted four land attack cruise missiles and 15 drones during a nine-hour barrage launched by the Houthis. It was not immediately clear if they targeted the ship or Israel. It appeared the latter was more likely. Elsewhere, in Syria and Iraq, U.S. forces were attacked by rockets and drones.

The Houthis also fired a ballistic missile toward Eilat, which was intercepted outside the Earth’s atmosphere by the Arrow air defense system in its first test of the war and what was believed to be the first combat ever to take place in space.

Israeli Air Force fighters also shot down drones over the Red Sea launched from Yemen. Israel subsequently deployed missile boats to the Red Sea. F-35I Adir fighter jets shot down a cruise missile, the first known cruise missile intercept by the American-made stealth fighter.

A spokesperson for the Houthis said on October 31they had launched three attacks and would “continue to carry out more qualitative strikes with missiles and drones until the Israeli aggression stops.”

On November 8, the Pentagon reported that a U.S. military surveillance drone was shot down off the coast of Yemen by the Houthis.

The U.S. shot down a drone launched toward Israel from Yemen on November 15. On November 19, Houthi rebels hijacked a cargo ship they mistakenly believed was Israeli. None of the crewmembers were Israeli. Drones and missiles also were fired from Yemen that were intercepted by the Saudis, Americans, and Israelis.

On November 26, the U.S. Navy responded to a distress call from a tanker hijacked by rebels and captured five armed individuals who attempted to flee in a small boat. The following day, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced two ballistic missiles had been launched from Yemen toward an American destroyer in the Gulf of Aden but fell into the sea far from the ship.

After Israel shot down a fourth missile from Yemen, the U.S. reportedly told Israel it would respond to the Houthis to avoid an expansion of the conflict.

Defiantly, the Houthis declared they would target all ships heading to Israel. “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,” their spokesperson said.

The French Navy moved into the Red Sea and intercepted two Houthi missiles on December 10.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that Saudi Arabia offered increased cooperation and investment in Iran if it prevented its proxies from expanding the war beyond Gaza. The deal must not have been accepted because Hezbollah and the Houthis continued their attacks.

On December 16, the U.S. missile destroyer Carney shot down 14 drones launched from Yemen. A British naval ship deployed to assist in the region’s defense also shot down a drone.

After repeated Houthi attacks on ships, the three major shipping companies said in mid-December they would no longer go through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. This will interrupt East-West trade, including the transfer of oil. The Houthis claimed to be targeting ships owned by Israelis or heading to Israel, but most of those attacked were neither. One, for example, was destined for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Reuters noted that “Bab al-Mandab is one of the world’s most important routes for global seaborne commodity shipments, particularly crude oil and fuel from the Gulf bound westward for the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal or the nearby SUMED pipeline, as well as commodities heading eastward for Asia, including Russian oil.”

As 2023 came to an end, the U.S. Navy was becoming more engaged with the Houthis. Biden had tried to organize a coalition against them, but the Gulf states most affected, including the Saudis, did not want to participate, apparently due to fear of an Iranian reaction. Britain and France moved warships to the Red Sea. Later, they were joined by naval vessels from India and Italy. Israel already had assets in the area.

During one 10-hour period, the USS Labon and F-18 fighters shot down 12 attack drones, three anti-ship ballistic missiles, and two cruise missiles. The United States and other navies were sticking to defensive measures and did not attack Yemen.

The danger in the Red Sea was heightened by the entrance into the waterway of an Iranian warship on January 1, 2024, a day after the U.S. sank three boats, killing ten Houthis attempting to board a container ship.

As Western forces built up in the Red Sea, the Houthis said they would not attack ships that declared they had no connection with Israel. They warned, however, that if a ship then headed for an Israeli port, it would be seized if it attempted to cross the Red Sea.

On January 11-12, the U.S. and U.K. carried out strikes against Houthi targets, firing more than 150 missiles and bombs at weapons storage areas, radars, and missile and drone launch sites. The action was taken after the Houthis ignored warnings to cease attacks on shipping that forced more than 2,000 ships to change course to avoid the Red Sea and cost Egypt millions of dollars in fees those ships would normally pay to transit the Suez Canal.

The Houthis said they would not cease their attacks and launched another at a U.S.-owned ship. Two days later, U.S. forces hit 14 missiles the Houthis were about to fire. The Houthis were also placed back on the list of terror groups, which Biden had removed them from when he took office.

China became concerned about the impact the Houthi attacks might have on its interests and told Iran to rein in its proxy. If Iran said anything afterward, it did not discourage the Houthis, who continued their attacks on ships in the Red Sea and fired another missile toward Eilat that the Arrow intercepted.

The U.S. and U.K. intensified their strikes on Houthi targets, striking 36 targets in 13 locations on February 3. The bombardment was ratched up in subsequent days, but Houthi attacks continued.

Iran Directly Involved

A U.S. Navy official subsequently confirmed that Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops were working on the ground with the Houthis. The U.S. also reportedly conducted a cyberattack against an Iranian military ship that had been collecting intelligence on cargo vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to aid the Houthis.

For the first time, a ship attacked by the Houthis sank. An anti-ship ballistic missile hit the Belize-flagged Rubymar on February 18, 2024, and it sank on March 2. The ship was leaking engine oil and tons of fertilizer, which could cause an ecological disaster in the Red Sea.

The first casualties from a Houthi attack occurred four days later when a missile hit a cargo ship and killed three people. Though the Houthis insist they are targeting Israeli ships and others heading for Israel, the True Confidence was Barbados-flagged and Liberian-owned.

U.S. Navy ships reported intercepting anti-ship ballistic missiles that are “way faster than anything else” and that no military had faced in combat before. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti said the USS Carney conducted 51 engagements in six months. “The last time our Navy directly engaged the enemy to the degree that you have was way back in World War II,” she said.

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