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Ominous tidings in Netanyahu call

A call from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Prime Minister Narendra Modi carried ominous tidings. A statement from the PM’s office said the two leaders discussed the ongoing “Israel-Hamas conflict, including shared concerns on the safety of maritime traffic”. In other words, the conflict in Gaza has spilled over into the Red Sea. In recent days, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been targeting ships in the narrow Bab el Mandeb strait which lies between Yemen and Djibouti at the southern end of the Red Sea, the narrow but strategic length of water that separates the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, with the Suez Canal at the northern end.

As many as a dozen attacks have taken place, with the Houthis, out to avenge Israeli attacks in Gaza, declaring open season on “Israel-bound” ships. They have also been firing missiles towards Israeli territory, particularly the city of Eilat. The escalation in attacks in the Red Sea has been described as unprecedented.

The latest incident came earlier this week when Houthis claimed to have conducted attacks on two more ships, one of them a ballistic missile-cum-drone attack. Shipping companies are in panic. The Red Sea is a vital corridor for global supply lines, and the tensions have forced shipping companies to reroute vessels via the Cape of Good Hope.

Significantly, Netanyahu’s call to Modi came a day after US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the launch of a 10-nation “multinational security initiative” named Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect ships in the Red Sea. Other than the US, it includes the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain. Austin said that the effort falls under the purview of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a Bahrain-based, US-led multinational maritime partnership that polices the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. India is part of the 39-country CMF.

Earlier this week, the Indian Navy’s INS Kochi went to the aid of a Malta-flag ship near the Somali coast, south of Bab el Mandeb, that had been boarded by pirates, successfully evacuating an injured crew member. Along with Kochi, INS Kolkata, both stealth missile destroyers, have been deployed close to the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aden.

Though the government has given no hint of this yet, it is possible that Delhi has been asked to lend a hand with the Red Sea security initiative. India must be cautious in taking any decisions that will pit it against Iran, with which Delhi has cordial ties. The government must ensure that any decision to join a military alliance on one side in a conflict on distant shores is debated openly and publicly and is backed by a broad national consensus.

(Published 20 December 2023, 20:00 IST)

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