On the eve of the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas terrorist attack, Israel’s situation in the Red Sea basin was seemingly more secure than at any period in its modern history. For the first time, Israel had contact and maintained relations — whether open or behind closed doors — with most countries bordering on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Having already normalized relations with Egypt and Jordan decades earlier, the 2020 Abraham Accords (which established diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco) resulted in Israel and Sudan promising to normalize as well. The Abraham Accords also enabled positive relations with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council in southern Yemen. Finally, in recent years, and especially in the months preceding the Oct. 7 attack, the normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia, with heavy involvement by the United States, had also accelerated.

These burgeoning relations with other Red Sea littoral countries proved valuable in containing Iranian subversive activities on Israel’s southwestern flank, preventing weapons smuggling to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and battling against the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in the region. But Israel’s improving situation in the Red Sea became particularly important for its national security interests following Oct. 7, when the country found itself under an effective sea blockade.

On Oct. 19, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement, claiming solidarity with Gaza, fired five cruise missiles and launched about 30 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) toward Israel, which were shot down by the guided missile destroyer USS Carney and Saudi Arabian air-defense forces before they could reach their target. Since then, the Houthis have not only continued to attack Israel with drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles but, on Nov. 19, 2023, they hijacked a cargo ship, Galaxy Leader, a Bahamian-flagged vessel registered with a British company partially owned by the Israeli tycoon Abraham Ungar. And since then, they have launched multiple attacks against commercial vessels heading to or in some way affiliated with Israel in order to force the latter country to stop its war in the Gaza Strip.

As a result, in recent months, Israel’s situation in the Red Sea has grown increasingly challenging in the security, economic, and diplomatic spheres. But the country is in a better position to meet these challenges and threats by leveraging the strategic regional partnerships it has developed over the past several years.


The most important and direct security threats to Israel are the UAVs and cruise and ballistic missiles that the Houthis have been using to attack Israel as well as establish a de facto naval blockade in the Red Sea. The Houthis have several missiles and drones able to reach Israel from Yemen, including the Toufan, a surface-to-surface missile with a range of 1,800 kilometers; cruise missiles from the Iranian Soumar family (about 2,000 km); Quds2 missiles (allegedly 1,350 km); Samad-3 and Samad-4 UAVs (1,800 km); and Wa’id drones (2,500 km), which are similar to Iran’s Shahed-136s. Many of these were shot down in late 2023 by the USS Carney guided missile destroyer, deployed to the region by the United States, and Saudi Arabia’s air defenses.

Moreover, the Houthis have targeted — using both stand-off strikes and physical hijackings — international vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, significantly aided by Iran. They “have launched more than 50 attacks on shipping, seized one vessel and sunk another since November,” according to the US Maritime Administration. Recently, the Houthis broadened their attacks also to the wider Indian Ocean. These attacks, ostensibly against ships tied to Israel, have paralyzed maritime transit via the Red Sea, with cargo volume passing through the Suez Canal dropping by more than 50% since November — effectively establishing a naval blockade against Israel from the south. In December, intelligence declassified by the United States pointed to Iran’s deep involvement in operational planning as well as providing the Houthis with tactical targeting data. According to media reports at around the same time, citing Western and regional security officials, an Iranian surveillance vessel in the Red Sea was observed passing targeting information along to the Houthis.

Additionally, Iran has directly attacked Israeli-linked shipping in the Indian Ocean. For example, in late November, a container ship owned by Singapore-based Eastern Pacific Shipping, which is controlled by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer, was attacked by an Iranian Shahed-136 as the vessel passed 200 nautical miles southwest of India. A month later, a Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned, Netherlands-operated (the Dutch firm is also associated with Ofer) chemical tanker traveling from Saudi Arabia to India was hit by a drone launched from Iran at approximately 200 nautical miles off the coast of the Indian state of Gujarat.

Israel’s response to the threat of Houthi missiles and UAVs has tended to take the form of a comprehensive integrated naval-land-air defense. Inter alia, Israel for the first time utilized its Arrow 2 and 3 aerial-defense systems in the country’s south to successfully intercept incoming missiles starting in November. Israel has also increased its naval presence in the Red Sea. Last December, the Israeli Navy completed the deployment of four cutting-edge Sa’ar 6-class corvettes. One of these warships, Ahi Magen, joined operational activities in the southern port of Eilat. The warship has two advanced air-defense systems onboard: Rafael’s naval Iron Dome and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Barak 8. It is also equipped with advanced electronic warfare capabilities to disrupt the onboard navigation systems of incoming enemy projectiles.


The de facto Red Sea blockade has harmed Israel’s economy. The port of Eilat, which mainly handles imports of automobiles and the exports of potassium fertilizer to the Asia-Pacific region, alone has suffered around $3 billion in direct economic losses. On Feb. 7, at a Knesset hearing on the economic impacts of the Houthi blockade, Eilat Port CEO Gideon Golber called on the Israeli government to mobilize and pay the salaries of the port’s employees.

Another long-term challenge facing Israel, which will depend on the duration of the ongoing crisis in the Red Sea, is the broader disruption of global supply chains. Currently, all Israeli maritime trade passes through the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Ashdod. Shipping companies opting to avoid the Red Sea and Suez Canal now circumnavigate Africa, which means an additional distance of 8,000 nautical miles. Israeli imports and exports take at least three additional weeks to arrive, thus increasing transportation costs from about $2,000 to $2,500-$3,000 per container. Additionally, this avoidance of the Suez Canal could risk marginalizing Mediterranean ports and trade routes.

Linked to these challenges is the risk of silent sanctions on Israel. More and more international shipping lines, including China’s COSCO and the Taiwanese Evergreen, are ceasing or temporarily halting carrying goods to Israel or accepting Israeli cargo. Furthermore, crew members on a growing number of ships are asking their managers to refrain from sailing in the Red Sea or stopping in Israel because of the perceived safety risks. Some foreign shipping companies have opted to unload their Israel-bound goods in Piraeus, Greece, from where a company with an Israeli connection takes it the rest of the way.

Israel’s emergency response to the Houthi blockade in the Red Sea has been to rely more extensively on an overland bypass route — the new truck transport line from Dubai and Bahraini ports to Israel via Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which was launched just before the war in Gaza. The goods being moved along this route already include food, plastics, chemicals, and electronic devices or components, though the process remains in the pilot stage prior to the full utilization of the line. The ground journey from Dubai takes four days, and from Bahrain two days and seven hours, compared to 14 days by sea. The cost of a tanker setting sail from Shanghai to Haifa can be about $4,800 through Bahrain and $5,800 through the UAE. Tellingly, Egypt joined this land bridge in December 2023.


From a diplomatic point of view, Israel has registered some successes in the Red Sea. Concerning the Houthi blockade, Israel’s strategy has been to showcase it as a global issue rather than solely an Israeli one. According to reports in the Arab media, Israel allegedly attacked a warehouse housing rockets and drones in Sana’a at the end of November 2023. Yet since then, there have been no reports of additional Israeli strikes against the Houthis. That military restraint and discipline in strategic messaging has paid dividends for Israel in multiple ways.

First, the Israeli position helped foster international involvement in providing maritime security in the Red Sea and hitting back against the Houthis. On Dec. 18, 2023, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the formation of a multinational maritime security force, led by the United States, called Operation Prosperity Guardian; and US and allied forces have launched multiple strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen — though for now with limited evidence that they have had a deterrence effect. Two months later, on Feb. 19, 2024, the European Union launched EUNAVFOR Aspides to safeguard maritime security and ensure freedom of navigation, especially for merchant and commercial vessels, in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz by accompanying them and protecting them against possible attacks at sea. Second, key Red Sea littoral states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have repeatedly engaged missiles and drones directed at Israeli targets. Saudi Arabia shot down Houthi drones and missiles aimed at Israel during the first months of the Gaza war as well as during the April 13-14 night-time retaliatory barrage against Israel by Iran and its Axis of Resistance allies. In December 2023, Egypt shot down a drone near the resort town of Dahab, in Sinai.   

That said, Israel has also faced important diplomatic setbacks in the Red Sea basin in the past several months. On October 9, 2023, Gen. Abd al-Fattah Burhan, the head of the national armed forces of Sudan — a country embroiled in civil war for over a year — announced, the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Iran. He did so despite the aforementioned earlier progress toward normalization between Israel and Sudan. Israel has notably not provided Burhan with weaponry to prosecute the war against his rival. In contrast, soon after the announcement of the recommencement of bilateral ties, Iran supplied the Sudanese army with attack drones, possibly positioning Tehran to act against Israel from Sudan as it did in the past.


More than seven months into its war, Israel faces increased security and economic threats in the Red Sea. On March 15, Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Saree declared that the Yemeni group would begin to target Israeli-linked vessels not only in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden but also in the wider Indian Ocean, in the sea lanes leading to the Cape of Good Hope. Later, on May 3, against the background of an imminent Israeli invasion of Rafah, Saree added that the Houthis would immediately target any ships in range heading to Israeli ports.

The issue of Rafah has also added tensions to Israeli-Egyptian relations, with Cairo raising the pressure on the Israelis against launching a full-scale military operation there. Following the Israeli takeover of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, Egypt raised its military’s level of preparedness in northern Sinai. Egypt is gravely concerned about Israeli attempts to force Palestinians from Gaza into Sinai, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repeatedly warned Israel against it.

Future developments in the Gaza war will impact Israel’s ability to fully integrate into the northern Red Sea basin. In that sense, a continuation of the conflict is detrimental to Israel’s regional situation. Ending the war and taking steps toward an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution is necessary to pave the way for such integration, enabling normalization with Saudi Arabia and reducing tensions with Jordan and Egypt.         


Dr. Moshe Terdiman is Co-Founder and Director of the Institute for Environmental Security and Well-being Studies, based in Jerusalem.

Photo by Al-Joumhouriah channel via Getty Images

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