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Attacks on Merchant Shipping Unlikely to Escalate

The question of whether, how, and when the Israel-Hamas war may escalate remains, and in the past two weeks, there is some evidence that international shipping may be a new area where at least some expansion of the conflict might take place. The fighting has not remained limited to Israel and the West Bank/Gaza Strip even since the outset of hostilities.

Other types of horizontal escalation have taken place almost since the start of the fighting. Houthi rebels in Yemen fired cruise missiles and drones at Israel that were intercepted by a mix of U.S. Navy vessels and Israeli defensive systems. Lebanese Hezbollah has exchanged direct and indirect fire with Israel along the latter’s norther border and in the Golan Heights region, and these exchanges continue. Israel has struck at targets in Syria that are linked to Hezbollah and Iran.

Iranian-backed proxies in both Syria and Iraq have targeted U.S. troop concentrations in those countries, and the U.S. has conducted three retaliatory air strikes in an attempt to both disrupt and deter future attacks of these types. The question is whether the maritime expansion of the conflict will escalate further and will it begin to interrupt shipping, including but not limited to the movement of energy products, in any significant way.

The latest incidents are the seizure of a chemical tanker carrying phosphoric acid in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday, a drone attack on a container ship in the Indian Ocean on Saturday, and a seizure of a cargo ship by Yemeni Houthis in the southern Red Sea last week. The chemical tanker, the merchant vessel Central Park, is owned by Zodiac Maritime, a division of an Israeli billionaire’s company. The drone attack in the Indian Ocean was against a ship owned by the billionaire’s brother. The hijacked cargo ship, the Galaxy Leader, is British-owned and Japanese operated with no apparent nexus to Israel although a Houthi spokesperson described it as “Israeli.” Iran and Yemen-based Houthis are geographically positioned and possess the capabilities to both highjack and attack merchant vessels along major sea lines of communication and at critical choke points of the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab.

The Houthis have threatened to target Israeli shipping and both they and Iran have targeted vessels they associate with Israel as far back as 2021. They likely view this as a fair exchange for Israeli targeting Iranian-owned and flagged ships that attempt to deliver arms to Hamas and/or Hezbollah and Israeli strikes at airports and bases in Syria.

While Iran and its proxies can continue this targeting of merchant vessels they associate with Israel, it is almost certain that a combination of the civilian maritime community and a coalition of Western-linked navies will respond to increase protection of shipping lanes and reduce risk to shipping. Responses of this sort have taken place in the past whether against Somali- based pirates or Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps attacks against Gulf Arab state oil shipments and infrastructure.

Reports just coming in indicate the U.S. Navy may have already taken action and freed the chemical tanker. An existing command and coordination structure, the Combined Maritime Forces – a 38-nation maritime partnership based out of Bahrain and headed by a U.S. admiral – would likely take the lead. This is in addition to measures that Israel will take to protect Israeli-connected shipping and retaliation by Israel against Iranian and/or Houthi capabilities. In sum, a larger-scale anti-shipping campaign, particularly against oil or related shipments, is unlikely to be sustainable although individual ships, especially those which have direct links to Israel, will likely continue to be targeted.
Source: ESAI Energy

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