Israeli or Not? What We Know About Car Carrier Hijacked by Houthis in Red Sea
15:31 GMT 20.11.2023 (Updated: 15:58 GMT 20.11.2023)
© Photo : VesselFinder / William J Leach Jr.Galaxy Leader vehicles carrier.
© Photo : VesselFinder / William J Leach Jr.
Yemen’s Houthi militia seized the Galaxy Leader commercial car carrying vessel in the southern Red Sea over the weekend, believing the ship to be linked to Israel. The IDF assured the ship is not Israeli. Where was the ship sailing from? Where was it headed? Who owns it? Who’s on board? Sputnik did a bit of digging to find comprehensive answers.
The commercial vessel hijacked by the Yemeni Ansar Allah (Houthi) Movement is not Israeli and there are no Israeli nationals onboard.
That was the Israel Defense Forces’ initial reaction Sunday to the seizure of the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamas-registered car carrier whose tracking systems went offline Saturday before it was reported captured by the Houthis in the southern Red Sea the next day.
What Do We Know About the Vessel?
The Galaxy Leader is a 48,710 ton, 189.2 long, 32.29 wide roll-on, roll-off (RoRo) car carrier. Built in 2002 at the now-bankrupt Gdynia Shipyards in Poland, the single-hull, steel vessel has a carrying capacity of up to 5,100 vehicles.
The ship’s port of registry is Nassau, the Bahamas, and it flies the Caribbean island nation’s flag for convenience (Bahamian-registered vessels operate tax-free).
The ship is operated by Nippon Ysen Kaisha Line (NYK), a massive, Tokyo-headquartered shipping and logistics company whose global shipping fleet contains 112 other vehicle carriers, and hundreds more container ships, bulk carriers, woodchip, reefer, tanker and LNG carriers, plus a handful of cruise ships.
According to NYK, the ship had between 22 and 25 people onboard at the time of its seizure, including sailors from Bulgaria, Mexico, the Philippines, Romania and Ukraine. The ship’s captain and first mate are said to be Bulgarian nationals.
According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence, the ship is managed by Stamco Ship Management Company Ltd, based in Piraeus, Greece, with its registered owner, Ray Shipping, incorporated in the Isle of Man, a British Crown Dependency. Lloyd’s says the vessel is owned by Ray Shipping Ltd, a Tel-Aviv-based shipping company operating a global fleet of some 65 vehicle carriers. The ship’s direct owners are listed as Rami and Yael Ungar, a pair of wealthy Israeli businessmen known for their involvement in the funding of Israeli political campaigns.
Maritime security company Ambrey has independently verified that the company belongs to the Ungar family. Rami Ungar told a US-based news agency that he was aware of the ship’s seizure, but declined to provide any further information.
19 November, 17:59 GMT
Why is Israel Denying Ownership?
“The hijacking of a cargo ship by the Houthis near Yemen in the southern Red Sea is a very grave incidence of global consequence. The empty ship departed Korfez, Turkiye on its way to Pipavav, India, staffed by civilians of various nationalities, not including Israelis. It is not an Israeli ship,” the IDF assured in its statement on the incident.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Office offered a similarly evasive comment. “Israel strongly condemns the Iranian attack against an international vessel. The ship, which is owned by a British company and is operated by a Japanese firm, was hijacked by Iran with guidance by the Yemenite Houthi militia,” the office said in a statement.
The seizure constituted “another act of Iranian terrorism” and “aggression against the citizens of the free world, and creates international implications regarding the security of global shipping lanes,” in the PM Office’s words.
Iran denied having anything to do with the hijacking, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani saying Monday that “this regime [Israel, ed.] cannot accept that it has been dealt a multi-dimensional defeat from a Palestinian resistance group in Gaza, and wants to find a justification for the defeat it suffered by accusing the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Regional militias are acting “autonomously” and are “representatives of their countries,” and “make decisions based on the interests of their nation,” Kanaani assured, stressing that Israel’s claims otherwise are an attempt at “projection meant to escape from the situation they are facing.”
The Pentagon confirmed the Galaxy Leader’s seizure, and a US National Security Council spokesman condemned it as a “flagrant violation of international law,” demanding the “immediate release of the ship and its crew,” and vowing consultations “with our UN partners for the appropriate next steps.”
What are the Houthis Saying?
The Houthis publicly confirmed their responsibility for the Galaxy Leader’s seizure, with the group’s spokesman, Yahya Sare’e, taking to X on Sunday night to say the hijacking was a response to Israel’s “heinous acts against our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Assuring that the ship’s crew was being treated “in accordance with the principle and values of our Islamic religion,” Sare’e warned that “all ships belonging to or dealing with the Israeli enemy” are “a legitimate target” as far as the Houthis were concerned, and urged “all countries whose citizens work in the Red Sea to avoid any work or activity involving Israeli ships or ships owned by Israelis.”
“If the international community is concerned about regional security and stability, rather than expanding the conflict, it should put an end to Israel’s aggression against Gaza,” the spokesman said, vowing that the Houthis would “continue” their military operations against Israel until its “aggression” against the Palestinians stops.
Earlier in the day Sunday, Houthi movement source confirmed to Sputnik that the Galaxy Leader had been intercepted and boarded by small boats, and that the seized ship had been taken to Yemen’s Al-Hudaydah Port, where its crew would be interrogated. “If they are not Israelis, they will be treated as guests,” Houthi political bureau member Hezam al-Asad told Sputnik.
Separately, Houthi spokesman and top negotiator Mohammed Abdul-Salam stated that “the detention of the Israeli ship is a practical step that proves the seriousness of the Yemeni armed forces in waging the sea battle, regardless of its costs,” and vowed that the operation was only “the beginning.”
The Japanese government said Monday that it was talking to the Houthis about the seizure, with Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa indicating that Tokyo was “communicating with Israel, and in addition to directly approaching the Houthis,” was “urging Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and other countries concerned to strongly urge the Houthis for the early release of the vessel and crew measures.”
“Our government will continue to take necessary measures in cooperation with the countries concerned, while taking into account the situation,” she added.
What is the Broader Context of the Houthi Hijacking?
The Galaxy Leader’s seizure is part of a broader strategy by the Houthis, whose areas of control in Yemen are over 2,000 km from Israel, to "reach out and touch" Tel Aviv using the tools of asymmetric warfare, which in the past have included a string of attempted missile and drone attacks, most of them intercepted by US, Saudi and Jordanian air defense systems before reaching Israel.
The incident followed threats last week by Ansar Allah’s Movement Leader, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, to attack enemy ships. The Houthis’ “eyes are open to constantly monitor and search for any Israeli ship in the Red Sea, particularly in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the waters that border Yemeni waters, although Israeli ships disable [positioning] devices in the Red Sea, they will not be able to hide,” he vowed last Tuesday.
15 November, 03:17 GMT
The Ungar family has already had experience with attacks on its ships in the region. In 2021, the Helios Ray, another of the billionaires’ car-carrying ships, suffered an explosion in the Gulf of Oman, with Israeli media immediately blaming Iran. Separately in 2021, the Israeli-owned Hyperion Ray carrier reportedly received minor damage after being struck by a missile off the UAE coast. Tehran has vehemently denied any involvement in the attacks, accusing Tel Aviv of staging a “false flag” incident designed to spark a regional war after the Helios Ray incident.
At the same time that it has accused Iran or “Iranian proxies” of targeting its commercial vessels, Israel has remained silent about its own alleged sabotage operations against the Islamic Republic’s vessels over the years, including numerous Iranian tankers trying to deliver oil to Syria, which has been starved of fuel by the US occupation of that country’s northeastern territories.
Ultimately, the Galaxy Leader’s seizure signals another escalation in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which began last month and threatens to expand into a regional conflagration amid the US deployment of two carrier groups and thousands of additional troops, as well as aircraft, to the Middle East. Limited skirmishes between the IDF and Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese border, and Israeli air attacks against Syria, have also served to ratchet up tensions.
Contrary to expectations by Tel Aviv and hawks in Washington, Iran has so far refrained from entering the conflict directly, instead joining dozens of other countries including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and others calling for an immediate ceasefire.