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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 12 JANUARY 2024

Blinken touts progress on Middle East trip; US weighs Red Sea naval operation in face of Houthi attacks

Blinken touts progress on Middle East trip; US weighs Red Sea naval operation in face of Houthi attacks
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Abir Sultan)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says US partners in the Middle East are ready to take steps towards long-term stability in the region – even as new attacks in the Red Sea and violence between Israel and Hezbollah suggest the crisis in the region is only getting worse.

The European Union was mulling over whether to establish a new naval operation in the Red Sea with the aim of re-establishing security and freedom of navigation, as Yemen’s Houthis continue to attack ships in the critical waterway despite warnings from the US and allies.

Harvard University was sued by Jewish students who claim the school had failed to punish campus anti-Semitism that soared after the Hamas attack on Israel and helped lead to the ouster of President Claudine Gay.

Blinken touts progress on Middle East trip despite crisis worsening

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said US partners in the Middle East were ready to take steps towards long-term stability in the region — even as new attacks in the Red Sea and violence between Israel and Hezbollah suggested the crisis in the region is only getting worse.

Heading back to the US after stops in Israel and with Arab allies, Blinken said he sensed partners were ready to focus on what he called “day-after issues” for the Gaza Strip — what governance and security might look like following the end of the war that began when Hamas fighters attacked Israel on 7 October.

“They’re also clearly prepared to take steps, to do things, to make commitments necessary both for Gaza’s future and for long-term peace and security in the region,” he told reporters next to his plane as he prepared to leave Cairo.

“We come away with a number of concrete steps forward,” Blinken said, including a commitment from the Palestinian Authority to pursue meaningful reform.

Blinken’s upbeat tone contrasted sharply with events that took place while he was on the trip. Soon after he arrived, Hezbollah said a top commander had been killed in Lebanon, days after a Hamas leader was killed in Beirut. While Israel didn’t claim responsibility, it appeared that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was widening his forces’ war beyond Israel’s borders and pushing it closer to conflict with Iran, which funds the two groups.

Shortly after that, Houthis in Yemen staged their biggest strike yet on commercial ships travelling through the Red Sea, launching a barrage of drones and anti-ship missiles that were shot down by US and British forces. Blinken threatened “consequences” for those strikes, and US and British officials suggested retaliatory strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen could come any day.

“Unfortunately, the Houthis continue, day after day, to attack shipping,” Blinken said. “We have a number of countries that have made clear that if it doesn’t stop, there will have to be consequences. And unfortunately it hasn’t stopped. But we want to make sure that it does, and we’re prepared to do that.”

The continued violence pointed to the challenges faced by the top US diplomat, who set the goal of looking past the current conflict even though it shows no sign of easing off. In Israel, he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do more to protect Palestinians and let more aid into Gaza. 

Blinken also touted a commitment to let a UN assessment mission into Gaza to look at how to get people moving back to the north after the end of Israel’s military assault.

Otherwise, Israel suggested it had little appetite to ease off the campaign that began after Hamas’ attack killed some 1,200 people and saw more than 200 taken hostage. Israeli attacks have killed more than 22,000 people in Gaza, prompting calls from around the world for a cease-fire.

Just as Blinken left the region on Thursday, he faced a new crisis: Iran captured an oil tanker off the coast of Oman, heightening tensions further and raising anew the threat that the US and Iran could come into direct conflict. 

EU weighs naval operation in Red Sea as Houthis continue attacks

The European Union was considering whether to establish a new naval operation in the Red Sea with the aim of re-establishing security and freedom of navigation, as Yemen’s Houthis continue to attack ships in the critical waterway despite warnings from the US and allies.

The bloc’s member states were discussing the plans this week to determine whether there is a willingness by nations to cover the costs and provide vessels for the new operation. The EU could finalise the plans as soon as a 22 January meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, according to people familiar with the discussions.  

It’s still unclear how the EU operation would complement an existing US-led mission, Operation Prosperity Guardian, which is joined by several EU countries, including France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Germany is among the member states willing to participate in the new EU mission, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

The US and its allies were weighing options for retaliation against escalating attacks at sea by the Houthis as they struggled to balance their determination to deter further aggression against the risk of sparking a wider Middle East war, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday. 

The Houthis, based in Yemen, launched their largest missile and drone attack to date on ships in the Red Sea on Tuesday, challenging US and UK forces patrolling the critical waterway. The Iran-backed militant group has said it won’t back down until Israel stops fighting Hamas, which is also funded and trained by Tehran. 

Houthi leader vows ‘big’ response to any US military assault

The leader of the Houthis threatened a “big” response to the US and its allies if they proceeded with military action against his group, which has been attacking ships in the Red Sea for almost two months.

“We’ll confront the American aggression,” Abdul Malik Al-Houthi said in a televised speech on Thursday. “Any American attack won’t go unpunished.” 

Al-Houthi said the scale of the response would surpass an attack carried out by the Iran-backed group on shipping lanes on Tuesday, which involved two dozen drones and a barrage of ballistic and cruise missiles. The assault was described by the US military as the largest to date. 

Al-Houthi, whose group receives significant financial, military and intelligence support from Tehran and is eager to elevate its standing within Iran’s alliance of regional proxies, said attacks on ships would continue. He claimed they are only targeting vessels linked to Israel in an effort to force an end to its offensive in Gaza. 

“Direct confrontation with the American, British and Israeli is what we yearn for,” said Al-Houthi. “We won’t relent no matter how many martyrs we offer.” 

Thousands of fighters had been mobilised and all preparations had been made for a battle with the Americans, he said. The Houthis have already christened the potential battle as Al-Fateh Al-Maood, which in Arabic means “a divine conquest ordained by God”. 

The group has vowed to retaliate against Washington for the killing of 10 fighters at the end of December, when the US Navy sunk three of the group’s speedboats.

Ships advertise Chinese links to avoid Houthi attack in Red Sea

At least five vessels transiting the Red Sea were using their signals to say they have links to China — the latest unusual measure taken to try to avoid attack by the Houthis in the Red Sea. 

Each of the ships was signalling “all Chinese crew” or something similar in a field that would normally contain its destination. Two were in the Red Sea, while two more had navigated the risky waterway and were sailing to Asia. A fifth appeared to be heading towards the Gulf of Aden.

Since early November, there has been a surge in attacks on merchant ships transiting the Red Sea by the Houthis. They say they are targeting vessels with links to Israel to protest against its military campaign in Gaza, though ships with no direct connection to Israel have also been affected. 

Harvard sued by Jewish students over ‘rampant’ antiSemitism

Harvard University was sued by Jewish students who claim the school had failed to punish campus anti-Semitism that soared after the Hamas attack on Israel and helped lead to the ouster of President Claudine Gay.

Harvard administrators failed to enforce policies that should protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic speech and conduct, according to the lawsuit filed late on Wednesday in Boston federal court. Students cited a US civil rights law that’s been used to sue New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and University of California, Berkeley.  

The lawsuit comes amid turmoil at Harvard, the US’s oldest and richest university, where Gay resigned last week after she initially failed to condemn the Hamas attack, mishandled her 5 December testimony in Congress about anti-Semitism and faced allegations of plagiarism.  

“It is clear that Harvard will not correct its deep-seated anti-Semitism problem voluntarily,” Marc E Kasowitz, whose firm filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Jewish students at Harvard are being subjected to vile and threatening anti-Semitic harassment and calls for the murder of Jews.”  

OurCrowd CEO says Israel’s tech start-ups prove mettle in wartime

Venture investor Jon Medved said Israel’s vaunted technology start-ups were withstanding a funding crisis triggered by the war with Hamas as the government and some private backers step in to prop up the industry.

“The startups themselves are really using a lot of grit to be resilient, and that is to make sure they can deliver,” said Medved, the founder and chief executive officer of Jerusalem-based OurCrowd. “There’s been a slogan here: Israel tech delivers no matter what. People are working very hard, and the startup community is weathering that storm well.”

Israel’s markets are rebounding after the shock of the bloody raids from Hamas-ruled Gaza — the worst in Israel’s history — on 7 October and then Israel’s invasion of the territory, Medved said on Wednesday on Bloomberg Television’s Wall Street Week with David Westin. DM

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