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Analysis Israel’s Maritime Security in the Red Sea: Historical Competition and the New Houthi Challenge

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

Since the early days of the conflict in Yemen, the Houthi movement has been in control of much of the Red Sea coastline. The waterway serves as the main artery for trade between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, estimated at about US$700 billion a year. Some 4 million barrels of oil pass through Bab al-Mandab Strait every day en route to Europe, and about 25,000 ships, or 7 percent of world maritime trade.[1]

As a result, Houthi control over parts of the Red Sea has been a subject of international concern, including in Israel. Asian imports and exports account for about a quarter of Israel’s total foreign trade, transiting mainly via Red Sea routes, making the safety of the waterway a national security issue.[2]

The Houthi movement has planted mines, threatening maritime navigation and used fishing boats to facilitate arms smuggling and to monitor the movement of US and other vessels in the Red Sea. In response, Israel has pressed its international allies to protect the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and improved regional relationships, most notably with the Abraham Accords, signed in 202o with the UAE and Bahrain. It has participated in naval exercises in the Red Sea alongside the US, UAE, and Bahrain. Israel began to establish close ties with the UAE in particular given its own maritime security network, encompassing Djibouti, Eritrea, Somaliland, and Yemen’s Perim Island and Socotra archipelago. Israeli concern about the threat emanating from Yemen is unlikely to end with the cessation of hostilities, and the relations it has built in the Gulf will likely be the basis for further cooperation and perhaps even a new stage of low-level conflict with the Houthi movement.

Historical Rivalry in the Red Sea

Rivalry between Israel and Arab states over control of the Red Sea dates back to March 1949, when Israel occupied the village of Umm Al-Rashrash[3] and established a presence on the Gulf of Aqaba. In response, Egypt and Saudi Arabia cooperated in 1950 to place the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, located near the Straits of Tiran at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, under Egyptian military control. Egypt then took a series of measures in the early 50s to restrict Israeli shipping through the gulf.[4] This severed Israel’s links with Asian and African markets and prompted Israel’s failed operation in Sinai in 1956, and later its successful occupation in 1967, which also included control of Sharm el-Sheikh, overlooking the Straits of Tiran.

Attention began to shift to the southern end of the Red Sea in the 1960s. Nasserist Egypt supported the republicans in North Yemen after the 1962 revolution and sent troops to the country, gaining further influence along the coast.[5] The Red Sea came into the spotlight at meetings of the Arab League, as both North and South Yemen raised concerns about Israeli activities. In September 1970, the Cairo-based organization delivered an intelligence report to the Egyptian foreign ministry about Israeli activities in the waterway.[6]In June 1971, leftist guerillas from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine fired on an Israel-chartered oil tanker near Perim Island.[7]

In response, Israel began to work to undermine Yemen’s control over the southern passage into the Red Sea.[8] From the Israeli perspective, the Red Sea was an international waterway and itl resisted efforts to frame the Red Sea as an Arab waterway,[9] pursuing a strategy of providing support to non-Arab neighboring countries. In the early 1970s, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev visited Ethiopia to start talks aimed at securing access to the Red Sea islands of Halib, Dahlak, the Hanish islands, Zuqar, and Dar al-Ayl, which at the time were under Ethiopian control.[10] Israel later began training the Ethiopian navy, providing patrol boats, missile boats, and a radar network, which was set up at the mouth of the Red Sea. In March 1973, Time magazine revealed that Israel had sent secret commando units to occupy uninhabited Zuqar island and established a radio and radar station.[11]

Later that year, during the October War, Egypt coordinated with North Yemen, and South Yemen closed the Bab al-Mandab Strait to Israeli shipping. North Yemen also dispatched forces to some Red Sea islands in an effort to prevent Israel occupying them, though there are no known incidents of conflict with Israeli vessels.[12] Still, Israeli designs on the waterway persisted, and in October 1977 North Yemen sent a secret memorandum to the Arab League confirming an increased Israeli and Ethiopian military presence on the coast facing the Bab al-Mandab, in what is now Eritrea.[13]

The normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel from 1977 allowed the latter freer maritime navigation through most of the Red Sea. By the 1980s it had returned the entirety of the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control, including territory overlooking the Straits of Tiran.

But geopolitics was to complicate the situation once more. The Iranian revolution in 1979 ended Israel’s close ties with Tehran, through which it had been able to obtain most of its oil needs via the Red Sea, and birthed a new rivalry in the Middle East.[14]

Iran Begins to Develop Ties with the Houthis

Following the Iranian revolution, Iran became an anti-Western force that looked for ways to support Shia populations in the region. That opportunity arose in Yemen with the rise of the Houthis, first as the Zaidi revivalist Believing Youth Movement in the early 1990s, and later in its later emergence as a military force in the 2000s. Amid unconfirmed reports of Houthi visits to Iran for military training, Yemen had become a politically salient issue for the Iranians by 2005, when hundreds of demonstrators protested outside the Yemeni embassy in Tehran during the third round of the Sa’ada wars between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement, demanding the expulsion of the Yemeni ambassador. The name of the street where the embassy is located was subsequently changed to Al-Houthi Street.[15]

Estimates by the International Institute for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya[16]indicate that Iranian support for the Houthis was initially minor, but Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Sa’ada wars in 2009, and the formation of the Saudi-led coalition in 2015, changed the rules of the game in Yemen.

In the Israeli view, Iranian policy in Yemen rests on three basic pillars: providing support to the Houthis; harming the interests of Sunni Arab countries, specifically Saudi Arabia; and controlling access as much as possible to the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The IRGC is the executive body tasked with implementing these policies through funding, arming, and training the Houthis.[17]

Israel also sees Yemen as an Iranian testing ground for weapons and tactics that could be used against it in the future.[18] Long-range ballistic missiles and small explosive-laden boats have been employed by the Houthis during the war, and could be used to attack Israeli ships moving through the Bab al-Mandab Strait.[19] Despite the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade on Houthi-controlled sea and air ports for much of the conflict, there have been reports of weapons smuggling via Oman, and the US Navy has seized numerous ships loaded with Iranian arms apparently bound for the Houthis.[20]

Maritime Security During the War

Since war erupted in 2015, the Red Sea and other Gulf waterways have become sites of increased contestation between Israel, the Saudi-led coalition, and its Western partners on one side, and Iran and its Houthi partners on the other. Houthi forces have planted numerous mines in the Red Sea, threatening maritime navigation. During 2017, 15 different mine-planting incidents attributed to the Houthis were recorded along a 100-kilometer coastal strip between the ports of Midi and Al-Mokha; the Saudi-led coalition said it had detected and destroyed 171 sea mines planted by the Houthis in the Red Sea.[21] In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly declared that Israel would be part of any international action to prevent Iran from blocking Red Sea shipping routes.[22] Israeli defense analysts claimed there were Iranian fishing boats equipped with satellite communication devices in Yemeni territorial waters working with the Houthi authorities to smuggle weapons and monitor vessels in the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and Red Sea.[23]

Israeli activities to counter these alleged actions ramped up after the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020. The following year witnessed numerous maritime security incidents: in April, an Israeli commando unit reportedly placed explosives on an Iranian vessel 87 nautical miles off the Yemeni coast near the Bab al-Mandab Strait.[24]An Israeli oil tanker was later attacked by an armed drone when it was passing through the northern Arabian Sea in June, killing two crew members.[25] Britain and Israel accused Iran of organizing the attack,[26] after which an Israeli dolphin-class submarine and two Israeli navy vessels deployed to the Red Sea.[27] In November, Israel carried out a joint naval exercise in the Red Sea with the US and Emirati navies.[28] In December, the US Navy said it had intercepted Iranian weapons en route to Yemen, detaining five Yemenis and seizing 1,400 Kalashnikov rifles and 226,600 rounds of ammunition. For the whole of 2021, the US Fifth Fleet – based in Bahrain – confiscated 8,700 illegal weapons across a 2.5 million square mile area, including the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.[29]In January 2022, Houthi forces seized a UAE-flagged vessel in Yemeni territorial waters, in what Iran’s IRGC-linked Tasnim News Agency said was a warning to Israel that the Houthis could target its vessels.[30] Another Israeli report in January 2022 claimed that Houthi authorities had established a special force under IRGC supervision to carry out piracy operations and attacks in the Red Sea, deployed with Iranian Noor missile systems.[31] In April 2022, the US Navy said it would establish a new force with its allies to patrol the Red Sea.[32]

Proliferation of Military Bases

One of Israel’s main security concerns related to Yemen is in preventing the Houthis from acquiring weapons capabilities to attack Israeli assets in the Red Sea or in Israel itself.[33]Houthi forces reportedly have access to an Automatic Identification System that can identify Israeli-owned vessels, increasing worries over coastal missiles and sea mines.[34]

The UAE has become especially important to Israeli security aims in Yemen. Along with Saudi Arabia, it is among the eight countries that have established military bases in Djibouti – which directly overlooks the Bab al-Mandab Strait – and in Eritrea, Somaliland, and Yemen’s Perim Island and Socotra archipelago, giving it extensive capabilities to monitor the area.[35] Reports in Israeli media suggest the UAE presence in Socotra includes a joint spy base with Israel. A delegation of Israeli and Emirati intelligence officers reportedly arrived on the island in August 2020 to investigate prime locations, identified as central Jumjimouh in the Momi area, east of the main island, and central Qatanan, in the mountainous west.[36] Other reports from security and intelligence observers indicate that since 2016, Israel has established bases at Mount Emba Soira near the town of Senafe, south of the Eritrean capital Asmara.[37] Israel has done nothing to dispel such reports, often claiming that its security and intelligence arms operate freely around the region.[38]

Houthi authorities responded to reports of UAE-Israeli cooperation via Iranian media, threatening to target Tel Aviv, the UAE, and Israeli military bases in the Red Sea.[39] Saudi Arabia publicly denied claims of a UAE military presence on Socotra and Perim,[40] but Tareq Saleh – a UAE-backed member of the Presidential Leadership Council – acknowledged the presence of Saudi-led coalition forces on Perim in 2021.[41] Saleh’s UAE-backed National Resistance forces are stationed at Al-Mokha, where they are charged with securing the Bab al-Mandab Strait.[42]

Future Prospects

So far, Houthi drone attacks on Saudi and UAE targets have had limited impact, but its recent attacks on southern Yemeni ports[43] have been a blow to government revenues. The potential still exists for more damaging attacks on Red Sea shipping, which could have effects on global maritime trade and oil markets.

Israel now views the Houthi movement as one of its most serious regional threats. It is an Iranian partner that has demonstrated increased military capabilities over the course of the ongoing conflict. It has shown a willingness to act in the interests of Iran when the occasion calls for it, such as claiming the 2019 Aramco attacks that are widely believed to have been carried out from Iranian or Iraqi territory.[44] All of this suggests Yemen could remain an area of contestation between Israel and its regional enemies in the years to come.

  1. Yoel Gozansky, ” The Red Sea – in a tangle of cross-rivalries [HE]”, IDF Maarachot Magazine,, September 21, 2020,מאמרים/הים-האדום-בסבך-יריבויות-צולבות/; Doron Baskin, “This is how impoverished Yemen is shaking up global oil prices [HE],” Calcalist, March 29, 2015,,7340,L-3655726,00.htm
  2. Eyal Pinko, “The naval battle against Houthi rebels in Yemen [HE],” Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy & Strategy, Maritime Strategic Evaluation for Israel 2018/2019,
  3. Israel renamed the town Eilat on June 25, 1952.
  4. Abdullah Abdul Mohsen al-Sultan, The Red Sea and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Rivalry Between Two Strategies [AR], Beirut: The Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1988, 3rd ed., p. 184.
  5. Abdelazim Ramadan, The Egyptian-Israeli Confrontation in the Red Sea 1949-1979 [AR], (Cairo: Rose al-Yusuf Press, 1982), p. 136.
  6. Ibid., p. 185.
  7. “Tanker bound for Israel attacked near Red Sea,” The New York Times, June 14, 1971,
  8. Ibrahim Khaled Abdulkareem, “Israel’s strategy toward the Arabian Peninsula [AR],” The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Abu Dhabi, 2000, vol. 1, p. 22.
  9. Egyptian journalist and Nasser confidante Mohammed Hassanein Heikal wrote in the late 1960s: “The whole of the Red Sea can be considered an Arab sea because the countries that overlook it are all Arab: the United Arab Republic and Sudan on the west and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, North Yemen and South Yemen on the east.” See,
  10. Al-Sultan, “The Red Sea and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” pp. 138-198.
  11. Ramadan, Egyptian-Israeli Confrontation in the Red Sea, p. 143.
  12. Hussein Ali Hobeishi, “Yemen and the Red Sea: Geographical, Historical, Economic, Political, Marine and Legal Position and Location [AR],” (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr al-Muasir, 1992), p. 290; Al-Sultan, “The Red Sea and the Arab and Israeli Conflict,” p. 185.
  13. Al-Sultan, The Red Sea and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 191.
  14. Jamal Ali Zahran, “The Development of Iranian-Israeli relations between the Shah and Khomeini eras [AR],” Journal of Palestinian Affairs, no. 138/139, Jan-Feb 1993, p. 41.
  15. Adel al-Ahmadi, “Cast and Stone: Shiite Rebellion in Yemen and the Position of Shiite Minorities in the New Scenario [AR],” (Sana’a: Nashwan Al-Hamiri Centre for Studies and Information, 2006), p. 166.
  16. “Iran and the Houthis in Yemen [HE],” International Institute of Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, situation assessment of January 2019,איראן בתימן.pdf
  17. Jonathan Saul, Parisa Hafezi, and Michael Georgy, “Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war,” Reuters, March 21, 2017,
  18. Uzi Rubin, “The missile war in southern Arabia: Lessons for Israel [HE],” Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, October 7, 2019,
  19. Yoni Ben-Menachem, “Yemen: Has Israel thwarted an Iranian attack? [HE],” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, November 10, 2019,אזהרה-תימן/
  20. Peter Bergen, “US intercepts multiple shipments of Iranian weapons going to Houthis in Yemen,” CNN, October 28, 2016,; Jon Gambrell, “US Navy says it seized Iran assault rifles bound for Yemen,” The Associated Press, January 11, 2023,
  21. “Yemeni army finds sea mines planted by Houthis in the Red Sea,” Yemen Monitor, December 27, 2020,
  22. Noah Spiegel, “Netanyahu: Israel will be part of a coalition that prevents Iran from closing the Red Sea shipping lane [HE],” Haaretz, August 1, 2018,
  23. Eyal Pinko, “Fishermen militia of the Revolutionary Guards [HE],” Israel Defense website, December 12, 2020,
  24. “An Iranian military vessel. The story of the Saviz that was attacked by Israel [AR],” Al-Arabiya, April 7, 2021,سفينة-ايرانية-عسكرية-قصة-سافيز-التي-هاجمتها-اسرائيل
  25. “Israeli Defense Minister: Iran launched a deadly drone attack on oil tanker,” Jewish News Syndicate, August 25, 2021,
  26. “Attack on Mercer Street vessel,” U.S. Department of State, August 1, 2021,الهجوم-على-سفينة-ميرسر-ستريت/
  27. “Iran: Israeli submarine escorted by destroyers crossed Red Sea [HE],” Hadri Hadarim, August 10, 2021,
  28. Etty Blumental, “Senior naval official: The goal of the training – Preparing to counter Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq [HE],” Kan News, November 11, 2021,
  29. “U.S. Navy says it seized arms from Iran likely bound for Yemen,” The Times of Israel, December 23, 2021,
  30. Seth G. Frantzman, “Yemen’s Houthis claim they targeted UAE ship as a ‘warning’ to Israel,” Jerusalem Post, January 5, 2022,
  31. “Under Iran’s directions, the Houthis establish a special force to launch attacks in the Red Sea [HE],”, January 21, 2022,
  32. “A message to Iran? The United States announces the creation of a new task force in the Red Sea [HE],” Maariv, April 13, 2022,
  33. Ari Heistein, “Yemen’s civil war changing course: Where is it headed? [HE],” Adkon Strategy Journal, Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), April 2020,
  34. Eyal Pinko, “The naval battle against Houthi rebels in Yemen [HE],” Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy & Strategy, Maritime Strategic Evaluation for Israel 2018/2019,
  35. Joel Gozansky and Gilles Horowitz, “The Arabian sea ports race – an international and regional competition for control of trade routes [HE],” Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), August 5, 2019,; “Abu Dhabi establishes an air base in Perim island [HE],” DEBKAfile, 28 May 2021,אבו-דאבי-מקימה-על-האי-פארים-perim-בסיס-אוויר/ Joel Gozansky and Gilles Horowitz, “The Arabian sea ports race – an international and regional competition for control of trade routes [HE],” Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), August 5, 2019,; “Abu Dhabi establishes an air base in Perim island [HE],” DEBKAfile, 28 May 2021,אבו-דאבי-מקימה-על-האי-פארים-perim-בסיס-אוויר/
  36. Hanan Greenwood, “Israel and the UAE establish joint intelligence bases [HE],” Israel Today, August 30, 2020,; “Report: Israel will establish intelligence bases on the island of Socotra in cooperation with the UAE [HE],”, August 26, 2020,
  37. “UAE and Israel plan to create intelligence bases on Yemen’s Socotra island,” SouthFront, August 28, 2020,
  38. Roy Kays, “Israeli submarines en route to Iran: ‘The navy operates everywhere’ [HE],” Kan, December 25, 2020,
  39. “The Yemeni army will thwart any Israeli attempt to infiltrate the region with the help of the UAE [HE],”, September 18, 2020,; “Aziz Rashed to Tasnim: Our capabilities are ready to strike any Zionist presence on the Yemeni islands [AR],” Tasnim News Agency, September 16, 2020,العمید-عزیز-راشد-لـ-تسنیم-قدراتنا-جاهزة-لدک-ای-تواجد-عسکری-صهیونی-فی-الجزر-الیمنیة
  40. “Saudi Arabia denies that UAE has built military bases in the Bab al-Mandab Strait area [HE],”, May 27, 2021,
  41. “Tariq Saleh reveals to Sputnik important details on Yemeni complex files [AR],” Sputnik Arabic, June 14, 2021,طارق-صالح-يكشف-لـسبوتنيك-تفاصيل-مهمة-بشأن-ملفات-شائكة-عن-اليمن-1049248488.html
  42. “Yemen loyalists take control of Bab al-Mandab,” Middle East Eye, October 2, 2015,
  43. Ahmed al-Hajj, “Yemen: Houthi drones attack ship at oil terminal,” The Associated Press, November 22, 2023,
  44. Michelle Nichols, “Exclusive: U.N. investigators find Yemen’s Houthis did not carry out Saudi oil attack,” Reuters, January 8, 2020,