The recent Israel-Palestine conflict is a physical manifestation of modern-day human crisis and the failure of the collective conscience of the international community. Israel’s bombardment of besieged Gaza, spanning more than five months, has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians – the majority women and children – and has injured approximately 75,000. Almost 35 per cent of urban infrastructure has been destroyed and more than 1.7 million people have been displaced.

According to the United Nations, the entire population of Gaza, about 2.3 million in total, is facing acute food insecurity. But despite the open display of grave human rights violations, no credible measures have been materialized to permanently halt Israel’s aggression. Cease-fire talks are yet to deliver any concrete results. Recently passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 2728, calling for immediate ceasefire in Gaza, has also been sidelined by Israel and no mutually agreed framework has been established to ensure conflict termination.

Considering the political vulnerabilities of the Middle East, it was feared that the Israel-Palestine conflict could transform into a major crisis with far-reaching consequences. Despite border skirmishes and targeted air strikes by Israel Air Force (IAF) in neighbouring Lebanon and Syria, the conflict has not escalated into full-scale war.

The spillover effect of the Israel-Palestine conflict has been profoundly evident in the maritime domain, particularly in the Red Sea, and has caused ramifications at a global scale.

Located between the Suez Canal and Bab-el-Mandab, the Red Sea is a transit route to roughly 12 per cent of total global trade and ensures connectivity between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The Red Sea provides a shorter route, approximately 4,000 miles less, compared to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. This shorter route significantly saves time, fuel consumption and operational costs for shipping companies, thus granting the Red Sea paramount geopolitical importance.

Iran-backed Houthi militia, which controls Western Yemen, has been targeting merchant vessels transiting the Red Sea in response to Israel’s aggression in Gaza. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is only 26 km wide at its narrowest point, making it vulnerable to shore-based attacks. Houthi militia has successfully exploited this venerability and has used shore-based missiles, drones, and even helicopter raids to target merchant vessels and warships.

Initially, Houthi rebels claimed that they were only targeting Israeli merchant vessels in an act of solidarity with Palestine. But after the United States and United Kingdom airstrikes in Yemen, the group expanded the target list to include American and British-origin vessels. However, factors like situational ambiguity, fog of crisis, and uncertainty in identifying and classifying ships passing through the Red Sea, have made all types of vessels passing through the Red Sea vulnerable to advertent or inadvertent targeting by Houthi militia.

As of 15 March 2024, 67 incidents involving attacks on maritime vessels by Houthis have been recorded. In general, such attacks have caused minimal damage. But on 02 March 2024, a British-owned bulk-carrier cargo ship, named MV Rubymar, sank after getting struck by Houthis’ anti-ship ballistic missile. The sinking of the ship, loaded with 41,000 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, not only showcased the risk of sinking large shipping vessels but also exposed the dangers of catastrophic environmental damage.

Seven of the top ten shipping companies have already suspended their operations in the Red Sea. The majority of shipping vessels have rerouted to the Cape of Good Hope around Africa to reach the Atlantic Ocean. The adaptation of this longer route extends the transit time up to three weeks and can undermine shipping operation efficiency by 25 per cent. Such diversion of shipping vessels has put additional strain on the global supply chain, badly impacting the global economy.

To synergize and augment the maritime security of the Red Sea shipping corridor, the United States launched a multi-national security operation, called Operation Prosperity Guardian, under the aegis of Combined Task Forces and supervision of Task Force – 153. The operation, however, suffered a setback from the very initial phase when several key U.S. allies showcased reluctance to join this U.S.-led initiative. Many important regional naval powers, including Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, were absent from the operation.

Many countries like France, Italy, India, and Pakistan sent warships under their initiatives to safeguard their maritime trade and distance themselves from the U.S. umbrella.

So far, only the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy have deployed warships to counter Houthis attack in the Red Sea under the ambit of Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Many European nations have decided to follow separate courses and avoid participation in U.S.-led initiatives. Under the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU is running a defensive maritime security operation, named Eunavfor Aspides, in the Red Sea.

Eunavfor Aspides, unlike Operation Prosperity Guardian, is a defensive operation directed to ensure maritime situational awareness and safeguard shipping vessels from multi-domain attacks at sea. Nations like Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Spain are currently participating in this operation, deploying their warships under their own rules of engagement. This defensive approach is an attempt to undermine the potential metastasizing of the Red Sea crisis.

As of 11 March 2024, naval coalition forces have intercepted/destroyed 28 missiles, 147 aerial drones, 19 unmanned surface vessels, and other military systems launched by Houthis. Despite an encouraging success rate, maintaining this defensive cover is unsustainable. A large number of expensive air defence and anti-ballistic missiles cannot be used to counter sustained attacks by cheap and rudimentary drones and missiles by Houthis. Even targeted strikes by U.S. and U.K against Houthis military assets have failed to dissuade Houthis from launching further attacks.

There are two key takeaways from the recent crisis. First, the Israel-Gaza crisis has revealed the limitations of the international community. Perhaps the most disappointing role in recent crisis has been displayed by the United States which has repeatedly expressed unwavering support for Israel and has deliberately overlooked the broader context of the crisis. White House’s policy of overshadowing the Palestine issue and undertaking direct engagements between Israel and Arab nations in the form of the Abrahamic Accord has also turned out to be counterproductive.

Instead of diplomatically resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, Washington showed more inclination towards containing the conflict spillover through military means.

The half-hearted response towards Operation Prosperity Guardian has also exposed a lack of political and strategic coherence between the U.S. and its allies as far as the Red Sea crisis and the Israel-Gaza conflict is concerned.

Second, the employment of rudimentary long-range weapons by non-state factions against international shipping has exposed the vulnerability of global maritime trade. Neither global shipping nor modern navies are fully prepared to counter such threats sustainably for a prolonged time. There is a need to develop new measures, both in the form of defensive countermeasures as well as regulatory controls for the non-proliferation of such weapons, to counter the threat of long-range weapons by non-state actors in the maritime domain.

The Red Sea crisis, a byproduct of the Israel-Palestine conflict, has already started inflicting ramifications on the global stage. There is a desperate need to formulate a mutually agreed upon and comprehensive framework for making tangible progress on Israel-Palestine conflict resolution. Otherwise, the assertive measures to contain the spill-over effect can further lead to inadvertent escalation of crisis with consequences at the global scale.

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